- Associated Press - Monday, June 15, 2015

HAMMOND, La. (AP) - There are a variety of reasons for someone to opt for an online school rather than a traditional brick and mortar one, such as a disability or the need to travel frequently.

For Caitlyn Turnbull, one of 153 graduates of Louisiana Connections Academy who had their graduation recently, the reason was an unexpected pregnancy her sophomore year in high school.

Louisiana Connections Academy is a kindergarten through 12th grade online public school that is available across the state. It was created four years ago, according to Lead Principal Glenda Jones.

After finding out she was pregnant, Caitlyn was allowed to finish that year, but then was barred from the private school she was attending near her hometown of LaPlace, said her mother Carrie Turnbull.

Turnbull sat in the bleachers at the Southeastern Louisiana University Center while her daughter’s class practiced before the ceremony. Sitting with her was Caitlyn’s infant daughter, Caileigh Waguespack.

Also waiting for the big moment when the graduates walked across stage was the family of Rhett Waguespack, Caleigh’s father.

“We’re excited. It’s a big step,” Turnbull said, of the two graduating.

Having a baby during high school was certainly not ideal as pregnancy often forces teens to put a halt to their education, she said. Caitlyn and Rhett, however, found a way to keep going.

“You make the best of it and move forward,” her mother said.

The families discovered Louisiana Connections Academy. It allowed flexibility when scheduling classes and after just one year, Caitlyn had enough credits to graduate early.

“Instead of being punished…she’ll be ahead of her peers,” Turnbull said proudly.

Caitlyn graduated with a 3.67 grade point average and scored a 23 on her ACT. She and Rhett plan to go to SLU for college where she will major in nursing and he will study engineering.

Turnbull credits the academy with helping her daughter not only earn a high school diploma, but to do it in three years while being a young mother.

“We wouldn’t be able to do that without Louisiana Connections,” she said.

Other parents waiting in the bleachers before the ceremony shared Turnbull’s gratitude as each of their child had unique situations that made it hard to fit in at a traditional school.

Lauri Ryder, mother of graduate Nikki, said they chose the academy after Nikki and her brother struggled with anxiety that prevented them from doing well at their previous school.

Her daughter started high school at a small campus, but then moved to a bigger one where she had to work in large groups of peers.

“That’s when the anxiety really kicked in,” Ryder said.

But at the online school, they are able to socialize on their own terms, so that the fear of groups does not get in the way of learning, she said.

John “Trey” Johnson, another LACA graduate, had a similar situation where he was unable to concentrate in classes that were often large and full of distractions, said Bonita Smith, his mother.

“He wasn’t able to function well,” she said.

After two years at Louisiana Connections, Trey’s grades improved as he was able to have more one-on-one time with teachers. Whenever he would call an instructor, he always heard back, she said.

“They actually called him,” she said.

The virtual school’s students still have some of the traditional high school moments, including prom, field trips and social clubs. But one important difference is that it is mostly the student’s responsibility to actually do the assignments, said Stacie Mancil, of Independence.

“You have to be self-disciplined,” she said.

Mancil was another parent waiting for the graduation ceremony when her daughter, Taylor Vitrano, would get her diploma.

Like Johnson and Ryder, Vitrano struggled to do well in a traditional high school setting.

For Della Davis, an online school worked best for her because she needed to hold down a part-time job to save up money for a move to Australia where her father lives, explained her grandmother Frankie, of Slidell.

“At first I was a little bit leary,” she said, of her choice to go to Louisiana Connections Academy.

But once she saw how well Davis did, she was convinced it was a good fit for her.

“She was just more focused,” she said.


Information from: The Daily Star, https://www.hammondstar.com

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