From Disconnect to Reconnect


By Darlene Wilgus | May 17, 2021, 11:50 PM PT

During the opening years of our online learning program, we looked more like a regular learning program and less like one with personalized learning options. As we experienced growth, there were shifts in our enrollment that we didn’t anticipate, which in turn caused changes in our practices. Being mindful of programs in various stages of development, there are 3 critical considerations in meeting the needs of diverse and underserved students.

E.L. Students and Their Families

About 5 years ago, our enrollment specialist extraordinaire wanted me to meet a new full-time online student that had transferred from one of our traditional high schools in the district. Nadia* was from Ukraine and had been receiving language support at her neighborhood school. I was curious about her decision.

She was a solid student, but not even close to being fluent in English. Her online advisor in our program had matched her up with a learning platform for her courses that translated the audio script into her language. As she acclimated to our virtual learning program, she relaxed and began to take charge of her learning plan.

Still perplexed by her decision, I pondered what it would be like to be 16 and sitting in a classroom of 25+ peers where I understood some, but not all of what was being communicated. Then, there was also the dreaded fear of having the teacher call on me in the spirit of equity and being potentially embarrassed at the ability, or lack thereof, to adequately respond. Wow, that was a lightning bolt moment! 

As the leader of this developing program, the student’s perspective about the virtual learning options we were providing was formative. Nadia graduated from high school through our program. Her newly gained confidence caused her to suggest our virtual learning program to a few of her friends. She was able to take charge of her future.

Are there E.L. students in your demographic who might benefit from learning virtually? Do you have a service plan for them?

Health Impaired Learners

I met with the SPED team at one of our schools at a staffing conference. Daniel* was going to have major surgery on his back. The question was: could our local online program offer Daniel one or two content courses while he was recovering?

The period of time he would be out of school fell across the semester calendar, and he was scheduled to be out anywhere from three to six months. Nothing in the traditional high school plan worked well for this student, and the team was actively seeking solutions. This student was wheelchair-bound and navigated campus as best as possible, but frequent frustrations, on top of mounting medical issues, kept him from being on campus.

We decided as a team to start with one course to see if this learning modality would work for him. Not only did he find success, but he quickly progressed. His family requested the ability to utilize virtual learning courses so that he wouldn’t have to navigate around campus until he was ready and wanting to return to that path.

Daniel was able to earn credits towards graduation in a season of his life in which he wouldn’t have been able to progress toward his goals. We also utilized a home health tutor to provide troubleshooting support and tutoring. Daniel and his family felt like their needs were met in a very tailored approach.

Expelled/Suspended Students

One phone call from a local associate principal changed the course of a young man’s life. Tough circumstances and a huge amount of risk hung in the balance. In a decade of zero tolerance for guns on campus, this sophomore, Edward* had assumed a threatening posture in the school parking lot and flashed a gun lent to him by his cousin. He was expelled from all school district property.

As a virtual online program, we had been requiring our district students to come on campus weekly for progress accountability and potential tutoring. This, of course, was out of the question given the circumstances. The administrator who called explained that the threat assessment had been done as per protocol in our region, and she truly believed this student was not dangerous. I had an online staff member that was fully aware of the circumstances and was willing to meet with the student weekly at the public library until the expulsion was vacated. The student stayed on target for graduation and when allowed to return to district property, continued with our online program.

The personalized learning options approach not only reflected SEL principles, but the student’s self worth was maintained. Today, Edward is a university junior with a bright future because we decided to look beyond a conventional approach to his consequences.

Virtual Learning Options Change Lives

The above stories highlight 3 different student groups that may benefit from a virtual learning option, either part-or full-time. There are other student groups in your demographic that may also benefit from having online learning options, such as highly capable K-12 students, socially disenfranchised students, and students facing shortages of adequate housing. Working with your counseling teams to this end would engage more students and provide a safety net for underserved students in your district.

Up Next: Finding the Right FIT for Your Virtual Learning Program

*Name had been changed


Meet the Writer

Darlene has 35+ years of experience in education spanning teaching and leading private and public schools K-12. She has also served as an adjunct professor in both education and university administrative programs for George Fox, Seattle Pacific, and Heritage. Her passions lie in student-centered practices, program development, and best practices approaches for teachers to employ. Her undergrad work was at Northwest Nazarene University, MED in School Administration from Central Washington University, and her Superintendent’s license was earned through the Executive Leadership program at Seattle Pacific University.

During her tenure in alternative learning the past 14 years, she became an NBCT, led a 10 member cohort with 80% certification in year one, and facilitated two district-level program cohorts. Her focus for the past seven years became a lightning rod for today’s educational paradigm: developing and implementing a successful district online learning program.