Reflections from the principal of an online high school
The sky is stratified with shadows and light, an imminent thunderstorm that doesn’t break. This strange magic light saturates the red brick and white stone paths across campus. More than two hundred people are driving in from five different states. I arrive early, an excited bundle of nervous energy, balancing on beige high heels.
As the principal of an online and blended high school, these face-to-face moments are significant. Our school has held an on-site commencement ceremony for the past 19 years. It is an opportunity for students who have studied at a distance to gather with family and friends, meet teachers and school staff, toss their mortarboards high in the air, and mark this moment in time.
Throughout their high school career, we’ve been flexible about space, place, time, and community. Today we trade being flexible for being synchronous. We line up in alphabetical order, march in to a live band playing “pomp and circumstance,” and pose for photographs. We notice everything.
The narratives of our graduating class are rich and varied. We celebrate athletes, international students, students with disabilities, gifted students, medically fragile students, adult students, and many more.
Being a part of this global learning community has taught me important lessons as both an educator and a human being. During the ceremony, I look out from the podium at each of the graduates in their matching caps and gowns. Behind them is a swelling crowd of family, friends, and colleagues.
I offer, “Our most important lessons happen in the convergence of content: when we remember a dialogue, a concept, or a skill from class and then see that at play in a new way in our communities.
The distances between people and communities keep getting smaller. You have classmates in over 100 countries. Your AP teachers have scheduled chats across multiple time-zones and thousands of miles. Our students are logging in from an island off the coast of Honduras, a learning center in Vietnam, and a bedroom in Lawrence, Kansas — all to chat together about AP Calculus.
You have both an opportunity to make a significant impact and also an obligation to care for the shrinking web that holds us all together.”
After the ceremony, we linger. We pose for more photographs. We visit. We eat cake. Two different families tell me that finding our school changed their lives. As both a parent and a teacher, I get it. I know what is like to take a non-linear path. I listen to stories about why a student (or a family) needed more flexibility with time, space, or place.
We need schools that think differently. We need classrooms that recognize that the world is small, deeply connected, and full of potential. I am thinking about these things when I spot Jessica, one of our graduates, sitting alone.
She is 30 years old. Earlier, when she received her diploma on stage, she asked if she could give me a hug. Over the past 13 years, she’s started, paused, and restarted her high school education. And now she has completed her degree. Next, she plans to study peace and conflict studies.
Jessica has flown here by herself and after the ceremony wants to take some pictures on campus. A colleague and I ask if she would like some company. The storm clouds have cleared, and we spend the next hour taking pictures and hearing more about Jessica’s story. She is beaming, pausing every so often to text pictures to her husband and mother.
“You know,” she tells us when we say goodbye, “I choked up when the closing performer sang, All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise.”
My colleague and I look at each other and smile. “Us, too.”
Best wishes to all of the members of the graduating classes of 2018 and especially to those whose journeys to cross that stage are marked by courage and the faith that so long as we keep trying, eventually we’ll get there.
The University of Missouri High School’s 2018 graduating class included 671 students who earned high school diplomas during the 2017-2018 school year. These students were from 11 different countries: the United States, Brazil, Cambodia, China, Egypt, Honduras, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Paraguay, and Vietnam. Many of our international students complete dual high school diplomas and celebrate their graduations at their brick-and-mortar schools. Our on-site ceremony is most-utilized by domestic students who study independently through online classes.