May 11, 2021

School, Now Tailored to Suit

TC’s Zoë Vande Kieft tried high school online. Here’s how it worked out for her.
By Ross Boissoneau | Aug. 4, 2018

Trying to fit sports and other extra-curricular activities into a school day can be difficult. For Zoë Vande Kieft, it was impossible. She found her love of and aptitude for hockey was at odds with the typical school day. So she opted to study online, and just graduated from Great Lakes Cyber Academy.

Though nominally a Traverse City resident — that’s where she’s originally from and where her parents now live — Vande Kieft has traveled all over for hockey. “My brother was into hockey. I wasn’t until middle school, [when I] started playing for fun. As I got older, I got more competitive and loved it,” she said. 

Vande Kieft was at summer camp in Montana when she was recruited by a coach for a prep school. She went to a boarding school in New York State for her sophomore and junior years, but her schedules still were not gelling. So for her senior year, she enrolled at Great Lakes Cyber Academy, GLCA for short. While many of her peers typically sat inside classrooms from 8am to 4pm, Vande Kieft was playing hockey and completing her lessons online when she had time.

She said the classes at GLCA were just as challenging as the ones she had taken previously, but now she could do the lessons without conflicting with hockey, and vice versa. It also allowed her to accelerate her learning when she found a subject that was easy for her. “I could go at my own pace. I could crank it up if I got it and not wait for others.”

On the other hand, when she needed extra help, it was only a phone call away. “I was always good at math, but online was more difficult. There’s no one writing on the board, no step by step to see how it’s done. I had to contact my teacher,” Vande Kieft said. She was able to work with the teacher one on one, which she credited with helping her understand the concepts and be able to solve her math problems.

Heather Ballien, the superintendent of GLCA, says the flexibility of online schooling can be beneficial to those like Vande Kieft or others who travel or who have other challenges with traditional school settings and schedules. She said that, in addition to intense sports or other extra-curricular schedules, bullying is an all-too-common reason why some students opt for online schooling. Another is older students who are uncomfortable with a peer group that is much younger than they are. “It’s really individualized to the student and family,” she said. “The common denominator is that something about traditional school didn’t work for them.”

GLCA is one of several such online schools operating in the state. As a state-supported charter school, it is tuition-free. GLCA currently has approximately 1,100 students from across the state in grades 6–12. Students hail from Escanaba to Tecumseh, according to Ballien. The school had 36 teachers this past year, and Ballien is still interviewing more, with the goal of increasing the staff to 42 this year.

While it doesn’t offer many of the traditional extra-curricular activities typical brick-and-mortar school do, it does offer clubs and activities for those with similar interests; that poses some advantages, she said. As an example, Ballien pointed to the school’s chess club. “Our students connect with schools from around the country, like Texas or South Dakota. They have global access, like in the real world.”

GLCA also offers options for the school year: Approximately 30 percent of the students elect to take their courses as they would with a traditional school year calendar. The remaining 70 percent take classes during an extended calendar year. That allows for either accelerated learning, or for a student to take a lighter load at any one time without falling behind.

Vande Kieft, for example, graduated in July, and the school starts its sixth year in early August.

Vande Kieft took advantage of the extended schedule, which allowed her to take the AP classes she wanted, when she wanted. The hockey player  graduated last month, and this should be the part of the story where the protagonist turns her love of hockey into an opportunity to get a scholarship to go to school. But that’s not the way it worked out.

“After all that, I decided not to play college hockey,” said Vande Kieft. The colleges pursuing her to play hockey were mostly located in the New England area, and she didn’t feel they were a fit for her. “I knew I wouldn’t be happy there academically. I ended up choosing the University of Iowa for pre-med.”

Iowa doesn’t even offer intercollegiate hockey — for either men or women — but the pull was there, she said. “My dad grew up in Iowa, and his brother went to med school there. I loved the campus, and I’ll be close to family.

“I’ll be okay. I’ve been skating all summer. It’s been mostly hockey for a very long time,” she said, but this is an opportunity to experience other activities and facets of life.  



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