For most high school seniors, graduation involves saying goodbye to people you’ve seen every day for years. But at one recent ceremony, much of the graduating class had never seen one another face to face. Though Capistrano Connections Academy charter school conducts its classes online, its students weren’t about to consent to a virtual commencement.
About half an hour before the ceremony at the Laguna Hills community center, senior Bridger Zadina waited impatiently, expressing the timeless emotions of graduating seniors everywhere.
“It’s a big day, a lot of excitement. It’s been 12 years in the making, so kind of just excited to see it all come to a close but a new beginning, a new start and see where things go from here,” he said.
Zadina’s not a typical high school graduate. He’s an actor who’s landed significant roles on the TV shows “Law and Order” and “Body of Proof.” He said he couldn’t have done that at a traditional high school.
“I tend to audition four to five times a week, and so it is normally fairly busy," he explained. "And along with each audition goes maybe two to three hours of reading script, and then building a character, working on memorizing sides, being prepared for when you go in for the audition." The College of William and Mary in Virginia has accepted Zadina.
Capistrano Connections graduate Iris Wang, a champion badminton player, needed the same kind of flexibility as her classmate. Last year, she played in 26 tournaments around the world. “We’ve been to South America, Guatemala, Peru, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Asian countries too,” she said. Wang received an acceptance letter from UCLA.
As she and other students assembled on graduation day, government teacher Keenan Kibrick met many of them in person for the first time. He said that doesn’t mean they haven’t spent a lot of time together.
“I know their voices very well and I know who they are, so when I hear the name it’s always good to see them because I still know the students. I’ve called them, every single one, many times, emailed them many times and they’ve been in lessons with me many times ... still know them,” Kibrick said.
Capistrano Connections Academy emphasizes online independent study. With the help of audio and video feeds, teachers help their students learn. The school requires students to participate in weekly online sessions called “live lessons.” The school offers “real” field trips and a “real” prom.
Virtual schools like this are growing fast in California. “To a certain extent it’s profit driven,” said UC Irvine researcher Mark Warschauer.
Warschauer added that companies that run online public schools, like Maryland-based Connections Education, the parent of Capistrano Connections Academy, get the same per-pupil funding as traditional schools but operate with lower costs. Home-schooling parents help drive the demand for distance learning and stay pretty vigilant about their children’s progress.
But Warschauer says online schools aren’t working out for a lot of students.
“When you look at the aggregate, these schools, lots and lots of students are dropping out of these schools, far more than their public school counterparts,” he said.
He says the reasons are still unclear. What is clear is that Capistrano Connections is growing fast. About 200 new students have enrolled in its kindergarten through 12th grade in each of the last several years.
Among the 106 graduates of Capistrano Connections Academy and a companion Central California school, only 15 spent all four years in the online high school. Bridger Zadina referred to their pioneer spirit in his valedictory speech.
“It’s a new place the world is going, a new boundary being broken, a new frontier that’s being explored,” he said.
Their high school might have been virtual, but their excitement at taking the next step in their lives is very real.