2018-09-13 / Life in Leelanau

Students with varying backgrounds study online

By Amy Hubbell Of The Enterprise staff


NICHOLAS PLAMONDON of Lake Leelanau is in his third year as a student at the Suttons Bay Virtual School. NICHOLAS PLAMONDON of Lake Leelanau is in his third year as a student at the Suttons Bay Virtual School. At 16, Nicholas Plamondon of Lake Leelanau been exposed to much more than what can be found in a traditional classroom setting.

He’s a virtual school student.

“There were a lot of other things I wanted to do throughout the school year,” said Plamondon, who is the son of Guy Plamondon and Anneke Wegman of Lake Leelanau. “And Suttons Bay’s virtual school lets me do this.”

Plamondon attended the Suttons Bay Montessori program before it became a charter school, then went on to the Greenspire School, a charter school in Traverse City based on “purposeful connections between individuals, communities and the environment.”

But as a freshman, Plamondon reached out to Suttons Bay virtual, and continues to receive instruction from the school — this semester as a government student — with the other half of his day spent at the Career Tech Center in Traverse City.


SUTTONS BAY virtual teachers are, from left, Shannon Schwarb, secondary math; Jane Grishaw, elementary; Adam Couturier, secondary English and social studies; and Ashley Richards, special education. Not pictured is Lauren Petz, secondary science teacher. SUTTONS BAY virtual teachers are, from left, Shannon Schwarb, secondary math; Jane Grishaw, elementary; Adam Couturier, secondary English and social studies; and Ashley Richards, special education. Not pictured is Lauren Petz, secondary science teacher. He is one of 182 K-12 students who receive online instruction this fall through Suttons Bay Virtual.

Students are taught by a core group of five teachers including Jane Grishaw, elementary; Shannon Schwarb, secondary math; Adam Couturier, second English and social studies; Lauren Petz, secondary science; and special education teacher Ashley Richards.

From a shared space in a vacant classroom near the school auditorium, teachers provide lessons for students in an area from U.S. 10 north to the Mackinac Bridge.

Reasons for enrolling are as varied as the number of students signed up.

“We have a diverse group of students with parents who run small businesses or others who are doctors,” teacher Adam Couturier said. “They are looking for strong academics with flexibility for their lifestyles.”

Among virtual students are competitive athletes — such as gymnasts, equestrians and skiers — who commit hours each day to training; students with health issues; and students who participate in internships and other activities.

Here’s how a virtual school works:

 Upon enrolling students meet in person with the teacher at a public location or with permission of a parent in the student’s home. It is also when the students receive a computer, and if needed, a device to connect their computer to the internet.

 During the meeting, students and their parents hear about materials that will be covered and learn about “weekly Wednesday” check-ins that are required by the state of all students from the very youngest to candidates for graduation.

 Odysseyware, a software program specifically for distance learning, is used to deliver the lessons. It is also used to track student progress and offer support when needed through Facetime or in the form of additional questions assigned to reinforce the lesson.

 Elementary students, whose lessons differ some from the Odysseyware program, are also given a box of items that they can manipulate to reinforce their online lessons.

However, secondary lessons differ little from those delivered in the traditional classroom.

“Our material is the same that’s recovered by brick and mortar schools,” teacher Shannon Schwarb said.

As of Friday, she had 131 students in her online classes. However, that number is expected to go up as students continue to enroll in the virtual program.

“It’s more challenging to build relationships. But it’s unique in that we meet them in person and we’re able to provide a ton of one-on-one help,” she said.

Teachers address questions from students that may not be raised in a traditional classrooms setting for fear of ridicule.

“It takes away the embarrassment and shame. You don’t have to worry about raising your hand if you don’t understand,” Couturier said. “Nobody will know and they get a personal answer suited specifically for them.”

In addition, neither teacher nor student has to deal with the discipline issues that come up in an “in school” classroom.

Student progress is monitored and teachers can offer help in the form of supportive lessons or exercises or prodding for those who haven’t put the time into their school work.

In his first year as a virtual student, Plamondon finished his coursework a month ahead of schedule.

Last year, he took a heavier classload. He was mentored in outdoor education two days a week at the Human Nature School, and two days a week at White Oak Timber Framing where he learned about different types of wood, milling wood and timberframing.

“The more he had in school the more disciplined he had to be,” his mother, Anneke said. “We got to see how he was making his choices and the consequences of those choices.”

This fall, Plamondon spends mornings at the Career-Tech Center in Traverse City where is studying sustainable agriculture. He gets his English and math credits for the year at the Career-Tech Center.

After lunch, he’s back at work with Foulkes at White Oak Timber Framing, where among other things, he’s learning about barn restoration.

The flexible schedule in past years has allowed Plamondon to explore local history and the forces that have influenced the development of Leelanau County. He has also volunteered with the Inland Seas Education Association.

Plamondon is currently three weeks ahead in his school work and has mentioned the possibility of working ahead on some senior level coursework.

So, how what does the non-traditional student say when asked where he goes to school?

Without hesitation, Plamondon responded, “Suttons Bay Virtual School.”

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