Statewide online high school's valedictorian is a local student

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comJune 22, 2014 

It's a virtual school, but her graduation sure was tangible.

So when Emily McClure of Harris County was chosen as Georgia Connections Academy's 2014 valedictorian out of 89 other home-schooled graduates, she gave a real speech in front of a real audience in a real arena.

During her valedictory address last month at the Gwinnett Center in Duluth, she challenged her classmates to be caring individuals.

"And when I say caring, I don't just mean loving or sympathetic, although those are important qualities to have," Emily said in her speech. "I mean care about something. Let it be anything, as long as you have something you are passionate about.

"See, so many people mourn our generation's apathy, our 'whatever' attitude toward life. And it's true that many people our age seem to have lost the ability to stand up for something, to unshakably hold to a truth and say, 'I believe in this,' no matter what an adversary may say about you or about that belief.

"Let's acknowledge this and say, 'I'm going to be different. I'm going to know what I believe and be willing and able to stick by it if somebody asks me what and why.' We have to learn how to communicate again, how to keep the global conversation going. We need to be able to express ourselves clearly. Or how else will we accomplish anything?"

Asked during an interview in her Fortson home what she wants to advocate, Emily said, "I guess integrity, more communication. There's been a movement, I heard it said recently, toward young people demanding more realness, especially from the government and that kind of thing. … I guess I want more realness, more down-to-earth, less putting up fronts."

And she modeled those words by succeeding in her online learning environment.

"Emily has been a shining example of what GACA aims to provide for students," Georgia Connections Academy principal Heather Robinson said in a news release. "But her hard work and goodwill has also made her a shining example of what a good student and person should be."

Independent learning

Emily, 17, was home-schooled until two years ago, when the academy expanded from grades K-8 to add a high school curriculum. Established in 2010 and headquartered in Duluth, the academy's enrollment grew from 700 K-8 students in 2011-12 to about 2,000 K-12 students in 2012-13, then 3,000 in 2013-14 and 4,000 expected for 2014-15.

The most significant benefit she gained from the academy, Emily said, is "the ability to learn at one's own pace. I'm not saying there aren't deadlines, but teachers are more willing to work with you. The simple fact is that in a classroom -- I heard many of my teachers who were in a brick-and-mortar school say this -- so much of their time in a traditional classroom was spent on behavior control. As far as an online school goes, you're allowed more personal communication with the teacher. It sounds funny to say that in a distance-learning setting you actually get closer communication with your teachers, but that's actually the way it is."

Students do their course work mostly independently on a secure computer network. They also have live interactive lessons scheduled in virtual classrooms. Teachers provide extra help via phone calls and emails.

Emily enjoyed the freedom to determine when she does her school work, but she must meet deadlines like regular students and take the same standardized tests.

While traditional high schools need a minimum number of students in an elective course to continue it, online schools can have only one student in a class, as long as there is a teacher to monitor it. The electives Emily took were art history and journalism.

The academy offers field trips and other socialization events as well as about two dozen clubs.

Asked what she missed by not being in a regular school, Emily said, "I really don't feel like I missed out on much. The obvious thing people would think we missed out on is socialization, but that's not true, considering I met with other students so many times as far as field trips and also since we can webmail other students."

Emily's extracurricular school activities have included the history honor society and the academy's online student newspaper, The Monitor.

Peer pressure wasn't an issue for her in the academy.

"Everyone was always friendly," she said. "You didn't have popular kids or mean kids or the club of people who are better or richer. The things that are expressed, the rich kids or people who are less privileged, which comes across in clothes and things you flash at other people and display about yourself, you can't do that in this school."

So she could be in her pajamas while in math class.

"Some teachers wanted the ideal of everyone having a webcam and having a screen full of everybody," she said, "but that was never actually reality because it would crash the system."

No fuss about what she would wear to school. No hassle driving through traffic or trying to catch the bus. No worry about getting to her locker and beating the bell for homeroom.

Time management

But it periodically was tough to discipline her schedule.

"My AP classes were hard and required a lot of work," she said. "I didn't manage my time very well, so my sleep schedule would be very off. I would stay up late working. You can't get up at 6 if you stayed up until 2. That got me in a bad kind of cycle."

Her advice to fellow online students: "Get your hardest work done first. If you hate math and it's hard and it takes you forever to get a lesson done, begin that at 8 o'clock in the morning. But sometimes it was more motivational to knock my easier classes out of the way in the morning and take the rest of the day to knock out my harder classes.

"I also had the tendency if I knew I had a long paper coming up in English, I would delay starting it. Don't procrastinate. Even if it's just writing one sentence that doesn't even make sense, start it."

Emily's father, Mark, acknowledged he and his wife, Sheree, sometimes had to "prompt and encourage" their daughter to do her school work. "The parents are in the loop on everything," he said. "We get emails that there is an emphasis coming or she might be a little behind on something."

Mark is a quality assurance engineer for Synovus. Sheree is a hospice nurse for Gentiva at Franciscan Woods Assisted Living.

The academy's students must have a parent or guardian approve their attendance hours. They must log a minimum of 27 1/2 hours of school work per week to meet the state requirement. Emily said her school work generally ranged from 5 to 8 hours per day. The academy doesn't allow students to log more than 8 hours per day, she said.

Online students don't need a gym to achieve their physical education credit. Emily logged personal exercise hours, and the academy also offers live online workout sessions with a teacher.

During her free time away from school work, Emily sews, participates in the Hunter Road Baptist Church youth group and organizes fundraisers for Mary's Meals, a charity that provides food at educational sites for children in underdeveloped countries.

College and career

Emily plans to major in mass communications and minor in political science at Georgia College & State University, where she will be in the honors program. She earned the Zell Miller Scholarship. Her dream job is to report on the U.S. Supreme Court for CNN.

As a junior, she took two semesters of Advanced Placement U.S. history and two semesters of AP English language and composition. As a senior, she took two semesters of AP English literature and one semester each of AP government and AP microeconomics. All of which should give her 12 college credits.

Her grade-point average of 4.23 gained her valedictorian status in February. Emily recalled, "In my junior year, I was talking to my parents and blurted out, 'What if I could be valedictorian? Nah, I bet not.' I knew I had some brilliant people in my classes."

Other academy graduates have been accepted to prestigious colleges such as Cornell University, Harvard University, Stanford University and University of California-Berkeley.

When she started her senior year, Emily was told she was in the running to be valedictorian if she maintained her grades. Then she produced straight A's that semester and clinched the honor in February with a 4.23 grade-point average.

Beyond what she learned through the academy, Emily noted another benefit from her online high school was how she learned: "The fact that we students are being educated in this way actually puts us ahead of other people our age. So much is being done online, it's a whole new way of life, and we're better suited to head straight into the work environment with this advantage we've had."

ABOUT GEORGIA CONNECTIONS ACADEMY

Georgia Connections Academy is an online, accredited and tuition-free public charter school for grades K-12 with a curriculum that meets state education standards. Georgia Cyber Academy is the only other statewide virtual K-12 school system in the state, Georgia Department of Education communications specialist Meghan Frick said in an email. The department offers Georgia Virtual School, which allows students to take middle school and high school courses online, but they still graduate from their local school, Frick said.

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter

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