His mom nicknamed him “Bubble Boy” because he was allergic to nearly everything in sight. But, for his California Virtual Academies teacher Heather Ferguson, an educator who has taught at CAVA for nearly two years, it was a malady not so obvious that she helped to heal.
After experiencing traumatic bullying at his bricks and mortar school, including being locked in the school bathroom and urinated upon by brutish classmates, “Bubble Boy” arrived at CAVA understandably withdrawn and distrustful.
Shortly after Ms. Ferguson met him, she said she became determined to reach her student, hoping to get him engaged academically. Consequently, she embarked on a form of student advocacy that many CAVA teachers said is difficult, if not impossible, to do at bricks and mortar schools.
Ms. Ferguson said that because CAVA, with curriculum provided by K12, is structured to make teachers easily accessible to their students via daily phone calls, emails and, in some cases, in-person sessions, she was able to provide the sort of individualized attention that her student needed to succeed. Her efforts proved fruitful, as he began to flourish.
“He had a lot going against him. At first… he wouldn’t participate, he wouldn’t talk,” Ms. Ferguson said. “Now, he is the first to help out with new classmates. He’s like the class president and that’s huge.”
CAVA teachers say one of the big misperceptions about online education is that it’s too insular and remote for teachers to reach and connect with their students. However, that couldn’t be further from the reality CAVA students experience on a daily basis given K12’s curriculum is suited for more personalized and meaningful contact.
“The personal touch is there in a virtual academy if the teacher seeks it out hard enough, and the students do as well,” said Rebecca Mortier, a high school regional program coordinator for CAVA’s Los Angeles campus, overseeing 1,300 students.
Ms. Mortier, who taught at a bricks and mortar for eight years, said she is finally able to be the advocate for her students that she wasn’t able to be at traditional schools.
“I think children are impressionable at any age,” Ms. Mortier said. “To be able to be an advocate for a child who may not have a voice of their own or to be able to instill something in a child that somebody else may not have been able to reach,” is rewarding.
And in many cases, CAVA teachers say that they find their advocacy often transcends the digital classroom.
Ms. Mortier recalled one outstanding student who, during her CAVA transition, worked extraordinarily hard to overcome a lot of problems that she had brought with her from her brick-and-mortar school, while simultaneously grappling with her father’s cancer. In her role as an educator, Ms. Mortier made it a point to communicate with her student’s parents on a regular basis to reassure the couple that their daughter was excelling at both her studies and interpersonally.
“The last class I had with that student, she stayed after and asked for the mic and explained that her dad had terminal cancer and didn’t have that long to live,” Ms. Mortier recalled. Clearly having made a positive impact on the student’s household, the young girl proudly recounted for the class many of the reassuring conversations that her teacher had with her father on her academic performance.
“He said it just gives me something to hold on to,” Ms. Mortier said of the student’s account.
CAVA teachers said the academy is not only an important resource for students, but also for teachers who want to make a lasting and significant difference.
“If CAVA was not available as a resource, it would be absolutely devastating to me,” said Christy Harris, an instructor for CAVA’s middle school program and a site coordinator for CAVA’s Community Day program in the San Diego area. “As an educator, I think it’s important to have these types of options.”
“I can give a call to a family and set up a conference session. It’s all very individualized. That’s something I wasn’t able to do in the bricks and mortar,” Ms. Harris said.
Ms. Harris said one of her major breakthroughs occurred with a student who was emotionally shut down after a series of painful experiences at his former bricks and mortar school.
“It was definitely a journey for me to try to break down the walls and to get him to trust me,” Ms. Harris recalled. After a lot of time, patience and specialized and individualized attention, Ms. Harris was happy to report that things finally turned around for that student.
“At that moment when I got that first smile,” she said, invoking a large smile of her own, “I realized it was a breakthrough.”
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