ARGO -- Sara Payne looked down at her 6-month-old baby daughter, Harper, as she put on her cap and gown for the final practice before graduation.
Payne was a student at Ashville High School but chose to finish her education through the St. Clair County Virtual Preparatory Academy.
“I did it for her,” were the words written across the top of Payne’s graduation cap.
“This has enabled me to spend more time with Harper and watch her grow,” Payne said. “Once I graduate, I plan on attending Jeff State in Pell City to become a physical therapist assistant.”
Last week, Payne was one of the first 13 graduating seniors who received a diploma from the St. Clair County VPA. The ceremony was at CrossPoint Church in Argo.
“It’s been exciting and very easy,” said Peyton Vallier, who moved from Texas eight months ago and attended the St. Clair County VPA. “It’s much easier than regular school and much more flexible. This school definitely kept me from being a dropout. I already have a job as an electrician.”
Student Chris Turney originally attended Moody High School and became the first student from Moody to attend VPA.
“It worked out great and it helped bring up my grades,” Turney said. “With more flexible hours, I was able to work better on my studies.”
VPA started last August with an enrollment of 23 students. Today, enrollment has grown to more than 200. Most of them are from St. Clair, but a few are from neighboring counties.
Joe Goble is the St. Clair County coordinator of Alternative Programs & Safety. He said he is excited about the opportunities VPA will provide county students in the future.
“We hope that current home-school students in our county and surrounding counties will consider what we offer in our program,” Goble said. “Our program ranges from full virtual options to a blended instruction approach. We want to be partners with parents who are looking for another option for their children.”
Retired Springville Middle School counselor Lisa Rayburn came out of retirement to be a part-time counselor for the academy, working from her home.
“It is a full virtual program, so all classes are done online,” she said. “The students work from home on a program called APEX. The program has everything built in for them. Their parents act as coaches, and we have teachers who are assigned to each class. The teachers are accessible through Skype, phone calls, emails, etc.”
Rayburn said attendance is taken when students log in each morning, and it is through the St. Clair County Board of Education.
Rayburn said school system officials accepted students in grades 6-12 this past academic year because the educational program being used was for those grades only.
“For the 2019-2020 school year, we are adding the elementary component that will allow us to teach kindergarten through fifth grade,” Rayburn said. “We follow the St. Clair County school system calendar, but because it is a Web-based program, they can access that program 24/7.
“Many of our high school students work part-time or full-time jobs. Most of their school work is completed in the afternoon or evening. And that’s good for our teachers who are retired or not working a full-time job. They will coordinate their hours with the students’ needs.”
Rayburn added this was a great option for students and parents.
“As a counselor at Springville Middle, I saw the county school system losing students many times to a home-school environment,” she said. “By allowing a full-time online program in our county, under the same umbrella of the St. Clair County Schools, we are reaching out to those students who would normally go to a private home-school program.
“They are now able to use our home-school program, so we are not losing as many students to outside affiliates. We’re keeping those students and offering them a program that is free. It is state accredited, and they can get the things they need as if they were in a public school system.”
As the SMS counselor, Rayburn saw firsthand how some students struggled in the public school setting.
“I’ve seen students deal with peer pressure, bullying, needing extra time to finish assignments or needing extra time to complete the objectives in each course,” she said. “This allows students to work at their own pace.
“There are also students who excel in the classroom, and through this virtual academy, they can graduate maybe in December of their senior year or earlier if they complete the course requirements. We do have some students who are on the dual enrollment or the advanced diploma. It really is a program that benefits both types of students – those who struggle, and those who excel.”
Adrianne Dodgen is the assistant principal of the alternative programs, which includes Ruben Yancy Alternative School and the VPA.
“It has been a wonderful experience to be part of the first graduating VPA for St. Clair County,” Dodgen said. “I’ve watched the program come together for the past two years and I have had the privilege to work with some amazing teachers.”
Dodgen said Goble worked tirelessly to recruit and get this program moving forward, and that St. Clair County Schools Superintendent Mike Howard has been supportive. Howard was guest speaker for the first graduates.
“Not every student thrives in a traditional classroom setting,” Dodgen said. “This program will allow our system to continue to provide a quality education for those students enrolled in our VPA program. We have some exciting and innovative components that will be added to this program, and I expect to see it continue to grow.”
Goble said applications are being taken now for the 2019-20 school year, and can be found on the SCCBOE website.
Reach Gary Hanner at email@example.com.