Justin Lancaster rolls out of bed in the morning and sits down at the computer next to his desk. Maybe his cat walks around his chair and maybe he starts playing music to help him focus on reading.
For most 16-year-old students, getting online is a pretty normal habit before they head off to school. For Justin, this is his school.
Justin is the oldest of the five Lancaster children, all of whom are entering their second year of online classes. Justin and his brother Brett, 14, attend Idaho Technical Career Academy and his younger siblings, ages 11 to 5, attend Idaho Virtual Academy. Heading into his junior year of high school, he is one of 165 students enrolled across the state in the free online public school and plans to finish high school online.
Justin went to Idaho Falls High School as a freshman but had problems staying attentive. While he enjoyed the school and kept fairly good grades, he said that the pace of the classes wasn’t engaging enough for him.
“I would zone out because there was all this extra time for work that wasn’t needed. I would finish one thing but not hear the rest of what the teacher said,” Justin said.
When he told his mother, Kristen Sutton, about the problem, she began looking for other options for his education. As a stay-at-home mom, Sutton also was looking for a way to make it slightly easier for her to keep track of all the assignments and work her kids were doing at school.
“We used to have kids in three different schools at the same time and it was chaotic in the mornings,” Sutton said.
Idaho Virtual Academy and Idaho Technical Career Academy both began in 2014, with the former focused on kindergarten through eighth grade and the latter on preparing high schoolers. Both schools are managed by the national online school company K12 and funded by the Idaho State Department of Education using tax dollars because they qualify as public schools.
Monti Pittman, head of the technical school, said that learning to work and study online were practical skills for students who might end up in careers that were largely online.
“When there are members of a team stationed all over the world, they can have a difficult time figuring out how to work in those remote environments. Our students get an advantage by learning those skills,” Pittman said.
Justin is enrolled in six classes right now, with a mix of the basic high school curriculum he needs to graduate and more specialized programs. Most of the classes meet on Mondays and Wednesdays through remote video calls, where the teacher presents lessons with some version of a slide show and answers questions from students in real time.
Aside from those classes, most of the assignments have a much broader time frame. Work needs to get done by the end of the day, or the end of the week, and Justin has to pace himself to make sure everything gets finished.
“It takes a lot of self-control. There is still a lot of reading I need to do for classes and that can go by really slowly,” he said.
The technical classes are already paying off for Justin. He earned four certificates last year for graphic design and Microsoft Office tools and has already earned a handful of college credits. According to Pittman, the school handed out 61 certifications in different technical programs last year and students earned 102 dual credits.
Justin also enrolled in the school’s Business Professionals of America club, which allowed him to meet other students and travel to local tournaments. During the year, the school also schedules quarterly events so students can meet others in the area and some of their teachers.
All five of the Lancasters were sent laptops to use for their classes, which Sutton said made it possible for all five to be enrolled at the same time. The school also sends packages for hands-on projects throughout the year and a printer for downloading paper versions of assignments and tests.
“It’s really fun and it’s really challenging. I want to be challenged by my classes,” said middle child Grace Lancaster, 11.
Grace said she enjoyed the science projects she completed last year in her fifth-grade classes, as well as the advanced math course she is was taking this year.
The Lancasters have done work from their laptops while spending weekends with their father and on their phones while on vacation in Oregon. The flexibility is also allowing Justin to look for a part-time job he can start this year. Once he graduates, he said he wants to be a graphic designer and is considering whether he would go to college or start working right away.
Contact Brennen with news tips at 208-542-6711.