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Going to school no longer means going to school

An empty classroom.

An empty classroom. Credit: iStock

For months I have been reading and writing about the poisoning of social media, the perils of unregulated drones and assorted other dangers posed by rampant technology. So I was delighted to see the pro side of progress during a visit to southeast Kansas.

It was Mother’s Day afternoon. An unusually persistent winter in the Midwest had turned to summer with hardly a mention of spring. In the fields around town — birthplace of Walter Johnson, the greatest pitcher in Washington baseball history (sorry, Max Scherzer) — soybean plants by the thousands had peeped warily from the warming earth to begin climbing toward the glare of the sun. Near the town square, inside Humboldt Community Fieldhouse, 60 students in black gowns and mortarboards waited patiently through speeches for the chance to collect their high school diplomas.

The bleachers were filled with proud family and friends. But this wasn’t a group that grew up together through ballgames and choir concerts. Alienated from traditional high schools, seeking an alternative, they found the Humboldt Virtual Education Program, one of the largest and best-regarded online high schools in the Sunflower State. After months, even years, of solitary study in internet classrooms, they gathered as a physical community for the first, and probably the last, time.

Across the United States, online education is booming. Sixth-through-12th-graders enrolled in Florida’s largest full-time virtual high school completed more than 44,000 semesters of classwork last year. In Kansas, virtual school enrollment grew 100-fold between 1999 and 2014, from about 60 students to more than 6,000.

Perhaps inevitably, controversy has followed the growth. Some educators worry that online schools are inherently inferior to traditional classrooms with their flesh-and-blood teachers and peer-group teamwork. I agree that the trend requires close monitoring; at this point, quality research is still sparse. But one widely cited study for Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government found that a well-run virtual school can match outcomes of brick-and-mortar institutions.

To Jody Siebenmorgen, director of the Humboldt virtual high school, comparing her program with traditional schools misses the crucial fact. Her students have tried the old model, and it didn’t work for them. “A lot of my students were expelled from their local schools, and neighboring schools won’t take them,” she told me. “I work with 14 different probation officers. I also work with some gifted students who are bored stiff in their schools and just want to finish quickly and move on to greater challenges. I work with students in foster care. I work with a lot of teen moms juggling school and child care. I work with students who are battling illnesses that prevent them from going to school. I once had a student who received a double lung transplant, and she attended high school on a laptop in bed at Children’s Mercy Hospital.”

And Siebenmorgen’s program enrolls some 200 adults who left school without graduating only to discover that a diploma is essential in today’s world. When the Kansas legislature weighed whether to eliminate funding for adult virtual education, Siebenmorgen traveled to Topeka to share the story of a Walmart worker in Iola whose GED certificate was preventing him from moving up in management.

As I scanned the gymnasium floor, I couldn’t help thinking of my own high school graduation some 40 years earlier. In those days, few alternatives existed for students turned off by bell schedules, crowded lunchrooms and teen drama. The 20th-century school was designed in a time when the majority of Americans did not finish 12th grade. Yet we took for granted that it could work for everyone, in an age of the indispensable diploma. It was not just the best model but the only model.

Thankfully, we’ve begun to appreciate that students aren’t stamped from a single mold. Some do their best learning at their own pace and rhythm. This awakening is surely one reason more Americans are finishing high school: The dropout rate fell from 11 percent to 6 percent between 2000 and 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Well-run virtual education programs are part of that success. Educators with up-close experience of at-risk students understand this — which is why Humboldt’s virtual school includes the daughter of a traditional school principal. And the daughter of a newspaper columnist. When the nontraditional learner in my family gripped her diploma proudly and gave Siebenmorgen a tearful hug, she became one of more than 400 alumni of a little Kansas town’s very big idea, with hundreds more in the pipeline.

These aren’t students normally celebrated with trophies and scholarships. But I would not bet against them. In an age of constant change, they’ve seized tools offered by technology and put them to good use. Instead of dropping out, they stepped up, toward a future that will favor those who see and grab new possibilities. An hour after they marched in, they sailed forth on the stream of lifelong learning, which promises to take them far.

David Von Drehle writes a twice-weekly column for The Washington Post. He was previously an editor-at-large for Time Magazine, and is the author of four books, including “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year.”