For Justin, in Honor of National Bullying Prevention Month
It all started with the vision of a kid.
I can still see him when I close my eyes: a fifth-grade boy, maybe a little small for his age, maybe prone to wearing the same Star Trek T-shirt every day. Let’s call him Justin. He’s that kid who gets so excited about whatever he’s learning—planets, puns, pi, you name it—that he jumps up from his seat and runs to chatter about it to whoever’s closest. Forced to settle back down, Justin gets bored, humming tunelessly and kicking the seat in front of him until his teacher calls out, “Enough.” After school, the other kids scatter to avoid Justin—except for the forever knot of older boys waiting to taunt, punch, and kick him all the way home. As Justin bursts through his front door in tears yet again, his mother says, “Enough.”
How Does Online School Help Bullied Students?
Back in 2001, this vision inspired a cluster of educators and innovators to ask: What if there was a school tailored specifically to Justin? What kind of school would be enough?
I was fortunate to be part of this group that soon became Connections Academy®, founded to serve something new across America: virtual public schools that allow students like Justin to learn at home on their own terms, connected via technology to teachers who applaud his enthusiasm and classmates who cheer him on. Future-focused schools that prepare today’s students to thrive at tomorrow’s colleges and ready them for careers we can only begin to imagine. Personalized schools of choice following the same standards as the best brick-and-mortar public schools, but available to any student, anywhere, in any state that allowed them to exist.
Fast-forward to 2019, and there are some 40 of those schools in 28 states serving more than 70,000 students. They’re part of a larger ecosystem of online public school options offered by districts, communities, and charters serving nearly half a million students today—and growing.
It turns out there are a lot of Justins.
That’s because in 2019, Justin is far from the outlier he may have appeared to be 18 years ago.
Growing cultural awareness of the autism spectrum and hyperactivity, as well as headlines about epidemic levels of youth anxiety and depression, hint at what online public school educators see on a daily basis. Today’s parents are highly attuned to their children’s learning differences and mental health needs. And young people are refreshingly open about them.
How Virtual Schools Created a New Normal for Students
Across America, public schools of all kinds are responding to this new normal with increased emphasis on social and emotional learning and more nuanced approaches to special education. There is also a concerted effort to address the toxic ripple effects of bullying on individual kids and their school communities: October is National Bullying Prevention Month for a reason.
For virtual public schools, welcoming students with their splendor of differences—while keeping them safe and helping them thrive in their unique, individual ways—has always been job one. Schools designed with Justin in mind now find the rest of American education catching on—and catching up.
Just in time, too: Not only are there a lot more Justins in our schools and communities than we ever realized, but Justin himself? He’s a parent now. And he’s imagining the kind of school that will be enough for his child.