Angela Prichard noticed that her son, Noah, was unhappy in public school. He was bullied, insecure, and reserved, and constantly sick from the stressful environment of his school.
Living more than an hour and a half from the nearest Seventh-day Adventist school, Prichard was short on options for a suitable alternative, and so she sought God’s help.
She felt her prayers were answered when she came across information about the launch of a new technology-mediated elementary school with the acronym ASPIRE (Adventist School Preparing Instilling and Redeeming for Eternity). During its first year, Noah enrolled as an eighth-grade student.
“When Noah was accepted into ASPIRE, it totally changed his life,” Prichard explains. “He loves it and doesn’t want to miss a day. I don’t even have to wake him up! In and out of school, teachers, pastors, and church members have noticed that he’s more active and confident. He is more himself.”
ASPIRE is a Grade 1-8 virtual school operated by the education department of the Michigan Conference, based in Lansing, Michigan, United States. For Jeremy Hall, Michigan Conference’s superintendent of schools, part of the core mission of Adventist education is to find and nurture students like Noah and reach as many young students as possible for the kingdom of heaven.
The Michigan Conference has 33 schools and 180 churches and companies scattered across the conference’s territory, and yet, Hall explains, “many of these schools are inaccessible or impractical to a large percentage of our constituent families, geographically or for other reasons.” Running parallel to this challenge, he says, is “a significant decline in enrollment across our schools over the last 10 years.”
An Unexpected Silver Lining
Hall and his team began strategizing to address enrollment declines before COVID-19. During the development process, the pandemic struck and changed the school system — and the world — for the foreseeable future.
“We were forced to transition all of our schools to an online delivery platform. And so, in a short amount of time, all of the teachers in our conference had to pivot and adjust to virtual teaching — and they did a phenomenal job,” Hall explains. “This global crisis, as terrible as it has been, still had a silver lining.” This abrupt shift toward virtual learning meant that launching a standalone online schooling platform like ASPIRE was attainable in a quicker timeframe than originally anticipated.
“We received so much support from the principals across the conference about this concept,” Hall recalls. “They all felt that we needed to do this, despite voicing some concerns about issues like prolonged screen time and age-appropriateness.” Currently, ASPIRE does not cater to kindergarten-age students due to difficulties with their attention span and focus on a virtual platform.
The conference administration and K-12 Board of Education have been supportive of this initiative. The education department is working with the Lake Union Conference (LUC) and the North American Division (NAD) toward a path of accreditation, and currently, ASPIRE holds “Candidacy Status.”
Currently, three similar online schools operate in the NAD: two in Canada and one in Atlanta, Georgia. The NAD leadership recognizes that the pandemic has forced schools and conferences to re-evaluate their options. “As we’re coming out of COVID, we have to reimagine Adventist education in the future,” Arnie Neilson, NAD Education director, said. “It may well include blended education.”
Today, education faces many challenges — primarily, educators are now far less able to predict the future due to the coronavirus. “At this point, the only constant is inconsistency,” Hall says with a laugh. “So, it’s important that we continually evolve and try our best to peek around the corners of life and ask the Lord to lend us the foresight necessary to help Adventist education exist until He returns. I see this platform as being a critical piece of that mission.”
Choosing the Best Option for Your Family
Hall emphasizes that ASPIRE is not meant to replace brick-and-mortar Adventist schools. “The relationships, physical touch, and in-person interaction that students experience in the context of a classroom is something that cannot ever be replicated through a virtual platform,” he says. “That is definitely one drawback of this kind of learning platform.”
Rather than superseding face-to-face instruction, ASPIRE is one of multiple offerings from which families can choose to best meet their individual needs. Offering live instruction and instant feedback, ASPIRE creates the uniquely personal and interactive virtual education experience some parents and students seek.
Families also can send students to Griggs International Academy, a distance education system serving elementary and secondary students, owned and operated by Andrews University. Like ASPIRE, Griggs provides high-quality Adventist education. ASPIRE provides an experience closer to in-person schooling, whereas Griggs can be likened to an asynchronous (on-demand) platform.
“Parents have approached us about enrolling their children in ASPIRE,” Hall says. “When they found out we offered live courses four days a week, they voiced that they needed something more flexible and self-paced. We were happy to point them toward our sister school, Griggs International Academy. Likewise, when families want a classroom-like experience from their homes, ASPIRE is the ideal choice.”
When compared to the cost of brick-and-mortar schools, ASPIRE is on the lower end. Currently, there is a US$350 registration fee, some of which goes toward a Chromebook for the student, as well as US$250 per month for tuition.
Every Student Has a Front-Row Seat
Currently, ASPIRE has two dedicated, full-time teachers and 20 students. Ben Zork serves as the principal and upper grades teacher, and Julia Robinson serves as the lower grades teacher. With more than 35 years of combined teaching experience, Zork and Robinson have successfully implemented innovative, personable, and interactive learning techniques for their students.
“The way I see it, every student has a front-row seat in ASPIRE,” Zork says. “Sometimes in a classroom of 20 or more students, someone can disappear in the back, where he or she may struggle to see and hear. With ASPIRE, those challenges are reduced, if not eliminated.”
Robinson acknowledges the need to pay careful attention to the amount of technology students interact with on a daily and weekly basis, and this factored into their decision to eliminate Friday classes. “We’ve tried to be very mindful and intentional with everything we do,” she says. Despite a four-day schedule, ASPIRE can meet the NAD educational standards and benchmarks due to the streamlined transitions between classes and other time efficiencies afforded by a platform like this.
To incorporate face-to-face interaction, plans are in the works to host “capstone weekends” once a quarter in a post-COVID world. During these three-day retreats, ASPIRE students and their families can gather together to further build school spirit and camaraderie in a face-to-face environment.
Reaching Young People for the Kingdom
God is already working through ASPIRE, as Noah shared with his mom and the principal that he wants to study for baptism and join the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Currently, the school is coordinating with his local church to help bring that to fruition. With God’s blessing, ASPIRE delivers Adventist education to students like Noah who might not otherwise have it, and helps educators continually adjust to the present times.