Nine-year-old Gabe Neis had a tumultuous third-grade year at Bridgewater Elementary School.
With attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia, he had trouble in the noisy atmosphere of a classroom full of nearly 30 other children.
He was bullied and didn’t get along with the teacher. Confidence, ability and progress withered.
“He hated school; it was the last place he wanted to be,” said Heidi Neis, his mother. “There was a sense of hopelessness.”
Since wrapping up the third grade, however, Gabe has made strides. Next year he’ll join his school’s student council as fifth-grade class representative.
During his acceptance speech, Gabe said he thought he was stupid, but now knows he’s smart. That he thought he couldn’t do anything, but now he knows he can be successful.
What happened this year, then?
Gabe joined Bonneville Joint School District 93’s online school.
“It’s fun. I get to stay at home — it’s like having a sick day but you’re still at school every day,” Gabe said.
Serving about 100 students, the K-8 Bonneville Online School was created for children who can’t find success in traditional schools.
This month, Fuel Education, an online education provider, presented Gabe and the school with its 2016 Transformation Award. The reward is reserved for schools and students that demonstrate excellent use of Fuel’s framework.
“We really pride ourselves on innovative learning for each individual,” said Shelley Andrus, the online school’s lead teacher. “For some students with different learning, behavioral or health needs, that flexibility is super important to them.”
Students enrolled are pulled from brick-and-mortar schools and taught at home by a “learning coach,” usually a child’s mother. The learning coach gets a crash course in teaching from district personnel.
Still enrolled in public school, the students take state-mandated standardized tests when necessary. The online school provides a curriculum and constant text, phone, email or video interaction with district teachers.
“I’ve improved with learning. The fall was tough but I’m starting to get facts easier,” Gabe said. “But it isn’t just me, it’s with the support of my teachers and mom.”
For many students, the online school allows a level of involvement that’s logistically difficult to swing in a traditional classroom.
“When you have close to 30 students, some that may have disabilities fall to the wayside. They don’t get the attention and accommodations they may need,” Neis said.
During warmer months, Gabe and his mother take advantage of the sunny weather and run through lessons outside. Sometimes at the table on their porch, other times on the trampoline in their backyard.
The one-on-one nature of a home-based education allows Neis to know whether Gabe needs to take a five-minute break on the trampoline or a spin on his bicycle to burn some energy. The flexibility of the schedule, meanwhile, allows those breaks to happen when they need to.
Figuring those habits out, however, was a difficult learning process for Gabe and his mother, who hadn’t had any experience teaching.
“There was a lot of tears and frustration,” Neis said. “Feeling like Shelley had to talk me down off a ledge or something, I was so overwhelmed in how I was going to do this.”
Throughout the process, Neis learned more about her child’s disabilities and how to set up him up for success. Reading instructions aloud, for example, or dialing back math work to a lower grade level.
“I didn’t have a clue how much his dyslexia impacted him,” Neis said. “You don’t just jump into a primary teacher role without figuring it out. I’ve had to learn as much as he has.”
Neis can text the district’s online school teachers in times of struggle and swap teaching tips with other parents during monthly learning coach meetings.
Students also have access to optional weekly Thursday gatherings with online school teachers and other kids in the program. They participate in games and activities. Sometimes guests come to present.
Though the gatherings offer a good chance at socialization, that isn’t necessarily their main purpose — many of the online school’s students still participate in faith communities, Boy Scouts, et cetera.
Instead, the weekly meetings show the children that others also have problems with traditional education.
Andrus said students get to see they aren’t the only ones who struggle to learn in crowded classrooms, while parents also see other families are going through the same situation.
Neis only began to feel comfortable teaching about a month into the school year.
Gabe, meanwhile, has worked during weekends along with winter and spring breaks to catch up on the courses he toiled with at the year’s beginning.
He may not be ready to rejoin a traditional school anytime soon. Still, the quiet porch outside of Gabe’s homehelps himsucceed in a way the schoolhouse couldn’t.
“He’s gained confidence in his own ability to work again; he’s really driving his own education,” Neis said. “I’m excited to see where he goes. And if he’s an online learner through high school that’s fine with me.”
Reporter Kevin Trevellyan can be reached at 542-6762.