Digital learning isn’t just a gimmick or a fad. It’s changing lives and making possible hopeful, promising futures for thousands of students. In this summer series, we’re going to look at examples of real lives changed by digital learning. Today, we’d like to introduce the inspiring story of Breon Johnson. Watch and read below. (And be sure to share with your friends!)
In the spring of 2009 16-year-old Breon Johnson was on the verge of giving up on school for good. With a report card full of Ds and Fs, success seemed out of reach.
What was the problem? Why did this bright, energetic student have such a hard time learning?
First, Breon struggles with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), causing him to have trouble focusing, sitting still, and staying on task. As a result, he learns differently. But then again, doesn’t everybody?
To add another challenge, Breon was faced with racism and discrimination from elementary school on—even from teachers. In second grade, he was told by a teacher that he couldn’t read and that he would never read.
Breon’s mom Melissa was very involved in the school, doing her best to ensure her son got what he needed. Time and again, he didn’t.
“He had no confidence,” Melissa told us. Tears welled up as she described what life looked like for her son. I asked her what would have happened if they hadn’t found out about public online learning. She had no hesitation in saying, “He would have dropped out of school. Without my consent.”
Fortunately, Melissa got a call from Breon’s school counselor, recommending she look into online public school. That was the beginning of a revolutionary chapter in Breon’s life.
“I was skeptical at first,” he told us, but decided to give it a try.
Breon enrolled with Insight School of Washington, one of the state’s largest providers. Insight has partnered with the Quileute Valley School District in Forks, WA for the past several years.
Because of Washington’s “choice” laws, students from any district in the state can enroll in this program or any other state approved online public school. This means students like Breon (from Snohomish) and thousands of others can get the individualized attention they need—and have their tax dollars pay for it the same way they would for traditional public school (Find out more here).
With teacher and family support and the combination of structure, flexibility, and motivation that meet his needs, Breon Johnson went from a defeated teenager to an honor roll student in just one school year.
The iLearn team visited the Johnsons and interviewed Melissa first. Meanwhile, Breon worked on a math lesson. “He would have never done this,” Melissa told us, pointing to the way he was working independently, excitedly, and with focus.
Breon looked up when Melissa’s interview was over. “Is it my turn now?” he asked with a smile, “Because I’m into this math right now.”
“Go ahead and finish,” we told him. That kind of learning shouldn’t be interrupted.
Support is one of the most important benefits of online schooling for Breon.
In his own words, teachers in his old schools “don’t care whether or not kids get through high school. They just go through the day and wait for their paycheck.” While not typical of every traditional school, these experiences were enough to kill his confidence in himself and in his ability to learn.
Breon described his teachers at Insight. They are invested in his success. They answer his questions promptly. They are available around the clock.
Unlike in a traditional school where even the best teacher can’t meet the unique needs of every student, answer every question, or know what questions students aren’t asking (for a variety of reasons), online learning allows Breon to communicate with his teachers in a convenient, individual way and on a regular basis.
Rather than going into school early or missing his bus staying late to get help, Breon simply emails, chats online, or even calls his teachers with questions. Their availability is virtually unparalleled; their understanding of Breon and his learning needs is unmatched. And their commitment to his success—coupled with academic rigor—is forging a future for Breon he didn’t believe was possible.
When asked what has been the biggest surprise with online learning, Melissa answered, “his grades. He’s a straight-A student. He’s on the honor roll. His confidence has shot up.”
For Breon, motivation is another key benefit of online learning.
Being made to sit at a desk for six or seven hours a day regardless of whether he’s learning—let’s just say it didn’t work for Breon. He’s a social young man and a very active one. For fun he likes to hang out with his friends, dance with his hip-hop dance crew, and play video-games.
“My mom tells me I need to do this, this, and this, and then I can hang out with my friends. I like hanging out with my friends, so I do it. Sometimes I get done hours before my friends in traditional school.”
One might ask then, is he really learning? How do we know he’s not just rushing through the material without understanding?
Goals + Mastery = Success.
Online learning is mastery-based, meaning students have to master material before they move on to new material. Practically, this means if a student fails a test, rather than just moving on to keep pace with the rest of the class, he studies and takes the test again. If necessary, he takes it another time until he understands the concepts. Teachers are available along the way to help the student grasp the material in the way that coincides with their personality and learning style.
Breon has the flexibility to spend more time on challenging subjects and less time on subjects that come more easily. At the end of the day, the bottom line is the same: Students must learn. But they can do it at their own pace.
As Breon approached his 17th birthday, he finished 9th grade on the honor roll. He told us, “I went from straight Fs, took a giant leap, and went to straight As. And I’m holding it up, too.”
A year before, Breon faced a very different reality.
I asked him what his future would have been like were it not for public online learning. He didn’t miss a beat. “I probably would have been that guy on the side of the street asking for change.”
Because of a public schooling option that meets his learning needs, Breon now sees himself teaching dance and opening his own studio. Teachers have also told him he should consider studying engineering. This from the student who “would never read.”
“This is one of the few options we have,” Melissa told us, “And it saved my son.”