Valedictorian Patrick Casa comes from a military family, and it was in keeping with a proud tradition that upon graduation from high school he was accepted to the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Salutatorian Layla Seyssel is a young mother who somehow managed to balance the adult responsibility of child rearing with her studies. She overcame long odds not only to earn a diploma, but also to graduate at the top of her class.
At a glance those highly successful students would appear to have little in common, but they are both products of the same 2013 graduating class at Beacon Academy, a statewide, online high school chartered to serve at-risk youth.
“But that label ‘at risk,’ can be a real misnomer,” Beacon Principal Susan Waters says. “We’re a distance education format. We serve a wide variety of students.”
Beacon is an accredited public high school, and as such adheres to Nevada’s education curriculum standards. Because it’s public, it charges no tuition. This year, Beacon’s fifth in existence, its statewide enrollment topped 700 with 95 students in the Class of 2013.
Obviously, that’s a tiny fraction of Nevada’s high school student population. Beacon doesn’t threaten to turn area high schools into ghost towns, but its supporters believe it holds the promise of a viable option for students for whom traditional high school isn’t a good fit.
And I do mean variety. From homeless youth to young professional actors and athletes, Beacon provides the opportunity for an online education taught by Nevada teachers.
“We’re a homegrown school with Nevada educators serving Nevada kids,” Waters says. “We think we’re able to attend to our students and react very quickly to what we need to. We’re not corporate. The buck stops here, so we’re able to address the needs of students here.”
One look at Waters’ résumé tells you she’s the right person to round up a statewide charter school. She’s a former cattle rancher who managed a small rural school district in Arizona before moving to Southern Nevada, where for more than 15 years she was a teacher, administrator, and grants administrator with the Clark County School District.
Beacon doesn’t have a football team, but it has a dedicated cheerleader in Waters.
“We are a public school with the same accountability and the same proficiency standards as any other public school in the state,” she says.
Beacon welcomes students who because of medical challenges cannot attend a traditional public high school. Military families on the move can enroll their teenagers in Beacon without breaking stride. And Beacon accepts students up to age 21 and welcomes those who, for whatever reason, didn’t graduate in the allotted four years.
The school employs counselors and mentors. And although it doesn’t field any sports teams, it does offer clubs and social events such as dances, a prom, and graduation ceremonies at both ends of the state.
Although students can choose their own class time, Beacon isn’t a shortcut to success. Homework is homework even if you never leave home. Students, Waters observes, have to remain motivated and organized. The classroom may be different, but the class work is that of a traditional school.
“We really work very diligently to help kids learn how to work through that online process,” the principal says.
The online high school route isn’t for everyone. And it’s not meant to put private charter schools out of business or elbow Nevada’s crowded traditional public schools aside.
But given the state’s sorry graduation rate and crowded classrooms, I think Beacon is a school to watch. The addition of an online component can only help repair our education system on the fly.
“Kids choose to come here for lots of different reasons,” Waters says. “They all benefit from the environment that we have and the supports we put in place. I know my kids. I know their needs.”
Beacon Academy provides a credible education opportunity for students in a complicated world in which a brick-and-mortar school isn’t always a realistic option.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.