STUDENT VOICE: My state supports public school choice, and I’m grateful for the options

When I was 11, my younger sister Hanna suffered a complication during a routine surgery. She was unable to breathe for 15 minutes and faced months of recovery that would keep her at home.

As a family, we wanted to spend as much time with her as possible throughout her recovery, which meant reconsidering my traditional elementaryschool schedule.

Supporting Hanna was just one reason why my family and I decided I would enroll in a tuition-free online charter school program beginning in fifth grade and why, as a high school junior, I’m still there, as is Hanna and her twin, Morgan. Public school choice allows students like me to personalize education in order to achieve unique goals.

I live in rural Idaho, and if I’d gone to a traditional middle school, I would have needed to travel more than 90 minutes round-trip from my home in Priest Lake to attend.

Because my parents own and operate a resort that keeps them busy on weekends, we knew that a traditional school schedule wouldn’t allow me to spend time with them on their off days during the week or help Hanna while still attending school.

Related: Most families have given up virtual school, but what about students who are still thriving online?

Idaho allows parents to send their children to any public school in the state regardless of where they live, and there are lots of options — eight different public school types, including charter schools, magnet schools, home-school programs and virtual programs like mine.

When we were making the decision, I also discovered that my local high school didn’t have the Advanced Placement and honors classes I’d eventually want to take. When my parents and I looked into alternatives, we initially considered other online public school options, but most didn’t fit my family’s schedule.

I could have opted for a “cut and paste” approach, in which we’d pick different programs to cover each subject, but that would have been more like a home-school program that my family didn’t have time to manage.

The author’s online charter school has allowed her to spend more time with her family while taking more advanced classes that match her goals. Credit: Image provided by Sidny Szybnski

Traditional public school requires students to attend school Monday through Friday, a great fit for a lot of families. However, I wanted to accommodate my family’s business and spend as much time as possible with them, so I found a program that allows me to complete schoolwork on Saturdays and Sundays and take Wednesdays and Thursdays off.

I can even work ahead of schedule if I have extra time. When high school started, I knew I wanted to take challenging math courses during my junior and senior years, and the school I chose offered the flexibility to simultaneously complete both Geometry and Algebra 2 during my sophomore year.

Online classes have also provided me with personalized support in the areas I struggle with most. My program has coaches who guide students through their school experience. Since I began my program seven years ago, my learning coach has helped me study, improve my reading comprehension and put into practice tips and tricks that have helped me succeed in my classes.

Learning coaches are different from teachers because they act more like tutors. I’ve really benefited from working one-on-one with a learning coach, especially when I was younger; they’ve helped me develop lifelong positive habits.

I’ve also had many teachers who accommodated my schedule and needs, which has had a great impact on my grades, my skills and my overall experience. One teacher helped me with a writing assignment I wasn’t even sure how to start.

She walked me through the steps over the phone and sent me videos and documents to help with formatting. She even allowed me to send her my rough draft for feedback before submitting my final assignment.

I could tell her goal was to teach me how to be a strong, resourceful writer and not just help me ace that particular assignment.

My school also does an amazing job of incorporating real-life scenarios into its teaching. In my math classes, lessons often describe how the math I’m learning is used in various careers. And the program’s technology platform helps prepare kids for the future; almost everyone needs to know how to write an email, use a computer and problem-solve.

Just because I’m taking classes online doesn’t mean I’m missing out on classroom conversations. Students share ideas on class topics through frequent online discussions. Everyone is welcome to comment on or add to one another’s ideas.

We’ll have to work with others throughout life. As many jobs are becoming increasingly virtual, it’s equally important to learn how to connect with peers digitally, and I feel like I have a head start.

My school also offers five different language options, including sign language. I’m learningSpanish and following a business management path that offers electives in principles of business and finance.

I plan to take more business electives because I want to study business or economics in college, hopefully at my dream school: Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.

Related: Supreme Court ruling brings an altered legal landscape for school choice

Because my program offers honors and AP classes, I can apply for competitive scholarships that require having taken a certain number of advanced-level courses. For reaching my personal academic and career goals, online public school has been the right fit.

My school has the types of teachers, staff and advanced courses I need to succeed, and I’ve been able to pursue an untraditional path. I’ve appreciated the extra time with my sister Hanna, who is playing sports and accomplishing many things doctors said she would never be able to do.

I’m grateful that I pursued my education differently despite the scary circumstances that made me and my family look for another way to attend school.

Sidny Szybnski is a junior at Inspire, the Idaho Connections Academy. She lives with her family in Priest Lake, Idaho, and hopes to become the third generation in her family to own and operate their lakefront resort.

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