Lawrence Virtual School grants diplomas to 80 students, its largest class to date

Lawrence Virtual School Class of 2017 valedictorian Dallin Harper illustrates his message that setbacks provide energy for future success to fellow classmates by pretending to draw a bowstring. The school's biggest-ever class of 80 students received diplomas Saturday, May 20, 2017 at Free State High School.

Jerri Kemble told the Lawrence Virtual School’s largest-ever graduating class Saturday that in addressing “virtual” students, she wasn’t addressing strangers.

The Lawrence school district assistant superintendent for innovation and technology said it may seem counter-intuitive, but she and their teachers got to know very well the 80 students who received diplomas at Free State High School.

“If you talk to teachers in traditional brick-and-mortar buildings and in virtual schools, they will tell you they build stronger relationships with virtual school students,” she said. “That’s true for me.”

Class salutatorian Tobi Barta said the bonds the class developed surprised her. When she enrolled in the virtual school four years ago, she worried that she would feel isolated and separated from classmates and teachers. That was before she knew that virtual classroom environments, clubs, student council and National Honor Society activities all drew her closer to classmates.

“Boy was that wrong,” she said of her early fears. “In high school, I found friends who would bring a smile to my face every morning and help wipe away tears when it seemed like high school was impossible. We are a group of students who have shaped each other.”

Barta, who will enroll at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo., in the fall to study social work and biblical studies, added that the self-discipline the graduates gained through the virtual school experience would serve them well in the years ahead.

That was good, because high school was the easy part of their lives, Lawrence Superintendent Kyle Hayden told the graduates. Commencement day was both the best chance ever to hit parents up for money and an opportunity to prepare for transitions, he said.

“It’s not going to get any easier,” he said. “There’s no perfect path. But no matter what path you take, you can still lead from where you are. You have the opportunity to blaze your own trail. Stretch yourself. Take a risk.”

Class valedictorian Dallin Harper told the class to use hardships or setbacks as energy for future success. Setbacks should be viewed as drawing a bowstring before launching an arrow with tremendous velocity, he said.

The words came from his personal experience with an injury that slowed his development as a child, Harper said.

“Today, my hardships and struggles are behind me,” said Harper, who plans to attend Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, to study chemical engineering with a biomedical emphasis. “The challenge taught me to see my trials as opportunities.”

In the FSHS commons after the ceremony, graduate Kayla Rose laughed with well-wishers while wiping away tears. She graduated after one year in the virtual school and now plans to attend Barton County Community College to study nursing or education, she said.

“It was really more convenient for me,” she said of virtual school. “They really are flexible and work with you.”

Standing nearby, graduate Noah Westervelt said it was the flexibility the school offered that attracted him.

“I wanted something different, being able to do my work at the time of day I thought best,” he said. He’ll keep to his own schedule as a graduate. He plans to work to save money before heading to college to study mechanical engineering.

As she waited in line for a post-graduation snack, Darien Williams said she built up a lot of anxiety waiting to cross the stage as the next-to-last student to receive her diploma from Virtual School Principal Keith Wilson. It was the end of the virtual school education she had started three years earlier, she said.

“I needed a different environment — a different setting,” she said. “It worked out really well. The teachers are supportive and always willing to give you the time you need.”