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Published in Print: October 1, 2005, as The Outsiders

The Outsiders

After 28 years of educating students who slip through the cracks, Donna Johnson is looking forward to one thing in retirement: doing it all over again, online.

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It’s late May in eastern Kentucky, and the dashboard clock on Donna Johnson’s beige SUV reads 3:30 p.m. Class has been dismissed at Hope Hill Children’s Home Alternative School, where she teaches troubled, abused, and mentally disturbed teenage girls. But as she takes the curves of the county road that leads home, her working day’s only half done.

Far removed from the tumult of her day job's classroom, Johnson runs her new school from a quiet home office.
Far removed from the tumult of her day job's classroom, Johnson runs her new school from a quiet home office.
—David Kidd

“The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to serve these kinds of kids—dropouts and potential dropouts,” she says in her gentle Kentucky accent, apropos of how her 26-year career in education has led to this point. We’re passing weathered barns, some with boards missing, others falling in on themselves, all bordered by a seemingly endless ribbon of fencing, and talking about the consequences of not graduating from high school. About how some students can’t learn the way most do and how that inability, no matter how intellectually capable they are, can sentence them to a life of poverty.

“For many of these kids, the difference between minimum wage and welfare is a high school diploma,” Johnson notes. “It sets the stage for them to set their goals a little higher.”

She’s talking about the students she has just left—“my girls,” she calls them. But she’s also referring to those she’ll teach when she gets home—the students who earn credits toward a diploma through Providence High School, an online entity Johnson created from scratch last January.

It seems like a mighty odd move for a 58-year-old grandmother with no prior online-learning experience, especially given the apparent differences between her day job and the virtual school she hopes to make her part-time career after she retires from the classroom. Between 8:30 a.m. and 3 p.m., she does more than just teach the 16 girls in her class. She hugs those who have problems with their caseworkers. She brings candy to help blunt the withdrawal cravings of drug addiction. And she has only to look into a student’s eyes to see she needs help.

But from 4 o’clock until as late as midnight, Johnson’s only contact with her online students, some of whom live abroad, is a cool-blue screen full of two-dimensional pixels. Whether the at-risk students she teaches are in the same room or a continent away, “she just has that instinct for working with those children,” says Betty Elliott, a now-retired principal who hired Johnson to teach at a public Kentucky alternative school in the late 1990s. As a means of educating hard-to-teach students, Elliott adds, a school like Providence High, which can be accessed by anyone, anywhere, “seems like it may be the trend of the future.”

If that’s the case, Johnson appears to be leading the pack. The majority of online schools are extensions of bricks-and-mortar institutions, both public and private. While there aren’t any statistics on teachers who start up their own online schools, let alone those specializing in dropout prevention, the practice certainly isn’t common, according to the National Association of Independent Schools.

Neither is it necessarily a good idea, online-education experts warn. Troubled kids in particular, they argue, need the structure and support of in-person interaction. But Johnson, once considered an unpromising student herself, sees online schooling as “a natural progression” from her hands-on teaching.

She grips the wheel more firmly as we near a hairpin turn. There are no guardrails along these winding roads, but after more than a year of driving the 20-minute route between her house and Hope Hill, she knows all the dips and peaks. With both her classroom and online pupils, she says, “what it comes down to is, they don’t fit in.”

As we approach the intersection with a state road locals call “the bypass,” a tiny green road sign appears ahead. Johnson slows and clicks on her turn signal, then cranks the wheel in the direction of the barely visible rectangle she passes every day on her way to school, then again on her way to Providence High—a sign bearing a single word: HOPE.

The next day, at 8 a.m., girls filter sleepy-eyed into Hope Hill’s cafeteria. Originally an orphanage, the facility is now a residential “behavioral treatment” center owned by the faith-based Family Connection Inc. From 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., however, it becomes a secular satellite school of the Montgomery County district. Johnson, one of three public educators on-site, teaches about half of the 35 residents—6th through 12th grade wards of the state who have been abandoned or abused by their families or filtered through the juvenile court system.

“Ain’t no hope on this hill,” comments a sweat-suited girl on her way to breakfast, overhearing a reference to the school.

Donna Johnson with her students from Hope Hill Children's Home Alternative School.
Donna Johnson with her students from Hope Hill Children's Home Alternative School.
—David Kidd

The average stay at Hope Hill is nine months, but “we’ve had some who’ve been here as long as three years,” Johnson says. One girl, she adds, has scars where her father put cigarettes out on her skin. Another is barely literate because she was kept out of school and treated as a sex slave by relatives until she was 15. A few are pregnant, and many have passed through abusive foster homes. With so much trauma at such a young age, she continues, “these girls are riddled with horrible self- esteem, and they try to gain it through sexuality and drugs, ... and so they end up in trouble.”

These are also the same kinds of students Johnson is beginning to serve through her online school. But not everybody believes at-risk kids should be learning in the vacuum of cyberspace. “One of the things people think is that online school is automatically a solution for troubled kids,” says Sandra Rowe, director of global services for the nonprofit Virtual High School, a Massachusetts-based collaboration between 300-plus schools worldwide that share courses and teachers online. “If you have a high-risk student who isn’t motivated, ... they’re not going to do well online just like they didn’t do well in the classroom.”

“Many times those students have many needs, and simply looking at online education to solve all those needs is an unrealistic expectation,” concurs Kent Tamsen, director of the Colorado Department of Education’s education technology center. Aside from basic instruction, he says, “there also need to be additional support ... services available to students. Guidance counseling, technical support, a mentor—some kind of connection.” He adds, however, that “anytime we can find options and reach out and give those students a chance to learn, I think that is vital.”

As the girls at Hope Hill sit down to scrambled eggs and cold cereal, Johnson is detailing the abject particulars of the school’s instructional facilities. Most of the PE equipment, for example, is broken, she says. Suddenly, a snub-nosed girl in an orange T-shirt and disheveled hair spots Johnson and ambles up to her, giving a heartfelt hug from behind. Johnson pats the girl’s arm affectionately as she continues describing the dilapidation: “Yesterday we played croquet with bocce balls. I mean, everything’s donated. But we played anyway. The girls call it ghetto—they say, ‘This is ghetto.’ ”

“We are ghetto,” mumbles the girl, her eyes just visible over her teacher’s shoulder.

If by “ghetto” she means isolated, she’s right. Hope Hill is islanded by acres of grassland, miles from any town. There’s no cell phone reception, limited access to landline phones, and no clock on the wall. One student—a pretty girl with dark eyes and a black T-shirt that reads “If I could control you with my anger, I would destroy you with it”—complains about the small dorm rooms, the windows rigged with alarms, and the potential escape routes equipped with motion detectors.

The research Johnson had done about online schools planted an idea in the alternative ed veteran’s mind: Hey, I could do this.

The security is necessary, Johnson says, because some of the girls are flight risks. But as soon as they turn 18, they’re on their own. And if they don’t have a diploma to land that first job with benefits, she says, almost all will gravitate toward the kinds of unstable relationships their parents had—the ones that made these girls wards of the state to begin with.

In Montgomery County, “work” usually means something in manufacturing, retail, or the public sector. The unemployment rate is 3.6 percent, almost identical to the state and national averages, and the poverty rate is 15 percent, a little lower than the state average and a few percentage points higher than the national average, according to recent U.S. Census reports.

But the girls Johnson is teaching are more vulnerable than most. “I know if they leave without graduating, ... five years from now they’ll have six kids,” she says. According to the 2000 census, almost half the husbandless women in the county who head households with kids younger than 5 find themselves below the poverty line.

After breakfast, Johnson’s 16 students sit at the fiberboard tables from which they’ve just cleared their dishes and start the day’s schoolwork. The girls, ages 12 to 17, are at dizzyingly different academic levels. Under a table is a fill-in-the-blanks worksheet abandoned by one of the students (whose names, by agreement with the school’s administrator, have been omitted to protect their privacy). In the space between “Harry” and “walked the dog,” she’s printed “done.” The many other blanks remain unfilled.

“She hasn’t finished 10 assignments this year,” Johnson says when the girl is out of earshot. She then crosses the room to confer with another teacher about beefing up the student’s language skills. Walking back, she addresses girls as “darling,” “honey,” or “sweetheart” as she assists a 12th grader with her Latin lesson and two other girls with math problems. Looking at a worksheet, she tells one student, “If you do something to one side, you have to do it to the other.”

Because her students’ needs vary so widely, Johnson doesn’t much go for mass instruction—what she calls the “shotgun approach.” She prefers being something of a tutor, especially now, when several students have already finished their coursework for the year. From across the room, intermittent cries bounce off the cinder block walls as she helps girls get caught up.

“Miz Johnson!”

“Miz Johnsaaaaan!”

“Miz Johnson!”

They want assistance with a grab bag of assignments, problems, and projects. From polynomials to sewing, Johnson seems to know it all.

“She’s really smart,” says a 9thgrader with straight blond hair, who adds that she’s been at Hope Hill for nine months and will remain there “until they let me out.” She’d like to go back to a regular school but admits: “If I did, I don’t think I’d make it. This is the only class I’ve survived.”

“I need help, Miz Johnson,” whines the girl wearing the “anger” T-shirt. She’s hunched over a pillow she’s stitching for vocational ed. “This isn’t going straight.”

Johnson sits next to her, and other girls cluster around as their teacher shows how to sew the pieces together. “Don’t get frustrated,” she tells them. “It happens to us all.”

What happened to Johnson when she was in school parallels her students’ isolation. Starting in the 1950s, when she was in grade school, “my teachers never saw me as an intelligent person or a capable person,” she recalls as she pulls out of the Hope Hill parking lot and heads home.

Johnson’s father, Earnest Davis, died when she was 10 years old, and her mother, Dorothy, who’d quit high school to get married, often had to juggle two menial jobs at once. She kept Donna and her older brother, Jim, fed, clothed, and off welfare, but in Campbellsville, their isolated central Kentucky town, growing up poor had consequences. Her teachers assumed she was stupid, treating—and grading—her accordingly.

“One year in high school, I got an A on every test,” she says. “Every test and every paper—this was in English. But at the end of the year, I got the report card, and it showed a D for that class. So I asked the teacher, and she said, ‘Well, you sat next to the valedictorian all year—I’m sure you cheated.’ ”

A few months later, Johnson placed first in a writing contest, winning a two-year scholarship to what’s now Campbellsville University. She then transferred to Morehead State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree. “It wasn’t until I got to college that my work was accepted at face value—because the professors don’t know where you’re from, or what kind of a family you’re from,” Johnson explains.

When one professor suggested that she submit some of her essays and poems to a journal for publication, Johnson was blown away. “Suddenly I began to see myself as an intelligent person,” she says. “There was something in me that knew I was, but I never got that confirmation back from teachers, and I struggled with that feeling that maybe I am dumb.”

English was her major in college, and an education career seemed a natural extension, but from the beginning, she was determined not to be the kind of teacher she’d dreaded. During college, she married Keen Johnson, a former Morehead classmate who’d just passed the bar exam, and set about raising the first two of their three boys. Several years later, in 1977, with her husband embarking on a law career that would eventually lead to a seat on a state circuit court, Johnson began teaching at a private Christian school—one of three at which she’s administered or taught.

Faith is deeply important to Johnson—as attested by the doctorate in theology she earned in 1995, five years after receiving her master’s in education from Morehead. But so is educational quality, something she claims is lacking at poorly paying religious schools. And although the name “Providence” carries a whiff of religion, Johnson says it’s not a part of her instruction, either online or in person. “I’m not preaching it, I’m just living it” is how she puts it.

In each school at which she taught, whether religious or secular, “the more I did it, the more I liked it,” she remembers, pulling up to the curb of her house. With the motor idling, she looks out the windshield toward a church across the street. “But ... I didn’t like the way most schools did it,” she continues. “I always had this independence about me that I wanted to do it differently—giving that personal attention, making it individual for every kid. I wanted to see kids succeed and not always be frustrated.”

Johnson has worked in nontraditional settings for most of her career, teaching, among other subjects, GED classes on cable TV, math to alternative high schoolers, and reading to remedial college students. What all of these students share, according to Johnson, is one basic problem with one predictable consequence. “When I talk to them,” she says, “they’ll say, ‘I don’t feel like I fit in anywhere.’ For some of these kids, the problems just build and build and build and build until they finally say, ‘I’m not going [to school] anymore. I will not go.’ ”

She sighs, then shuts off the ignition. As she walks up the driveway and enters the house—an unassuming, split-level abode—she recounts how she came up with the idea to establish an online school.

A few years ago, the family moved to Colorado, where Keen, who’d retired from the bench, joined a private law firm. Although their first two sons had grown up and moved out, the Johnsons were still living with their third child, a teenage Mexican boy named Tyler, whom they’d adopted at birth. On the street one day, he was jumped and badly beaten— because of his dark skin, his mother insists. When the family returned to Kentucky, in 2003, Tyler dreaded going back to school, and the following summer, approaching senior year, he needed just three credits to graduate. But administrators at the high school, citing a stringent school board policy, insisted he take a full course load. Johnson recalls thinking to herself, There has to be a better way.

Tyler ended up earning his remaining credits and a diploma through a traditional correspondence program. But the research Johnson had done about online schools planted an idea in the alternative ed veteran’s mind: Hey, I could do this.

Just a few carpeted steps from Johnson’s front door, we’ve entered Providence High School. It’s a comfortable converted bedroom with pale-green walls, a desk, a Dell PC, and white plastic bookshelves filled with course books. Waiting for the computer to warm up, Johnson sits down, removes her glasses, and kneads the groove they’ve worn into the bridge of her nose. A barely audible sigh comes from where she’s hunched over—the sound of fatigue, or maybe a mechanism in the hard drive starting up.

There are other reasons why Johnson founded PHS, beginning with the emotional toll of teaching at Hope Hill. “I know the burnout rate working in a place like [that],” she says, putting her glasses back on. “Doing what I do, I knew that I couldn’t do this for too many more years. My husband tells me, ‘You’re taking too much of this home.’ I said, ‘How can I not?’ Because I go home and I worry what’s going to happen to these kids.”

Even though she’s pondering retirement, Johnson knows that she’ll still need to reach out in some way—at least part time—to students who are falling through the cracks.

Though it's less than a year old, PHS already has more than 50 students, from college-bound homeschoolers to GED-seeking 20-somethings to people wanting to take classes from the other side of the world.
Though it's less than a year old, PHS already has more than 50 students, from college-bound homeschoolers to GED-seeking 20-somethings to people wanting to take classes from the other side of the world.
—David Kidd

One such student is Michael Maness, a 16-year-old who was about to drop out before coming across Providence. In the Kentucky town where he’d lived most of his life, he played sports, got good grades, and was popular at school. But when he and his mother moved to Pennsylvania in 2003, he hit a brick wall. His freshman classmates were locked into social cliques from which he felt excluded, and he was soon getting in trouble for fighting and cracking wise to his teachers—“pretty much trying to get a way for kids to like me,” he explains.

Halfway through his sophomore year, Michael was fed up and in danger of being expelled. “More or less, I was probably going to end up quitting school when I turned 17,” he says. “I was like, ‘I can’t see going through this for another two and a half years.’ ”

His mother, Mary Wooldridge, insisted that he earn a diploma, however, not just sit at home until he turned 18 and could take the GED exam. So when a guidance counselor suggested online schools, they shopped around until they found PHS, which was less expensive—$200 per course, payable in installments of $50 a month—than others they considered. (The nonprofit Virtual High School, for example, charges its 6,100 enrollees $425 per course unless the student’s bricks-and-mortar school is a teacher-lending member of the VHS network, according to spokeswoman Rowe.)

“It gives me a little sense of pride because I can answer most of those questions on my own,” Michael says of Providence. “I do a lot better at home than I did at regular school.” Having done a grade level’s worth of work in the five months since enrolling, he expects to graduate in six months and is already looking at colleges.

Kids like Michael make up half of Providence High School’s 52-member student body. With her computer up and running, Johnson scrolls down a queue of student e-mails, then starts to fire off a few of her own. In one, she answers a question about history. Then she checks a file in the bookcase to see how far a student’s Spanish lessons have progressed. Soon, she’s tapping out two more e-mails— one math-related, the other a query about English.

This isn’t teaching in the traditional chalk-and-talk sense. What it does resemble, however, is the deeply individualized instruction Johnson gives Hope Hill students. And that, of course, is her point—that one size does not fit all. She continues to scan her e-mails, one of which reminds her of a plea she got from a teen in a traditional school who wanted to enroll at Providence. “He says, ‘I hate getting up in the morning because the thought of going to school literally makes me ill. Is there any way to go to this school?’ ” She shakes her head. “They’re legitimate feelings that they can’t, for whatever reason, deal with appropriately.”

In addition to the at-risk students, about 35 percent of Johnson’s online charges are secondary-age homeschoolers looking to supplement what their parents teach them. The rest are largely students in their early 20s, many of whom dropped out of high school and now need a diploma to get a job.

“They get into drugs and alcohol, and they’ll get expelled,” Johnson says. “But a few years later, they’ll wise up and grow up and realize they need that piece of paper.”

Exactly how far that piece of paper will get Johnson’s students is not clear. PHS is less than a year old, and the Commission on International and Trans-Regional Accreditation, a consortium that accredits distance ed schools across the country, requires two years of continuous operation before considering applications. It can take up to three years more to get the nod.

Johnson hopes to receive that imprimatur and has assembled PHS textbooks, homework, and exams accordingly. Meanwhile, she’s gotten the Better Business Bureau’s stamp of approval for her school to help reassure scam-wary potential students.

The girls at Hope Hill know about Providence High, and they’re all for it, but they don’t want one of the few teachers who’s ever cared about them to drift into cyberspace forever.

Tim Howard, a Kentucky businessman whose teenage son enrolled at Providence earlier this year after he was at risk of dropping out of a large public high school, admits that he worried about the validity of a PHS diploma. But after he and his son (whose name he didn’t want to divulge) met with Johnson, he came away convinced. “She went through her reasoning,” he recalls, “about how her courses were up to the standards recognized by colleges. ... We feel like if he takes the ACT and scores in the range he needs to have to go to college, he’ll be good to go.”

“Colleges and universities in the last five or 10 years have fairly rapidly developed ways of assessing homeschoolers” and other nontraditional graduates, says David Hawkins, director of public policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, in Virginia. “Obviously they can rely on standardized test scores to some extent.”

But he cautions that “without accreditation, it is an uphill climb for those kids” to substantiate online academic records. And while “it’s reasonable that colleges will give [PHS] a fair shake,” he adds, “the burden will really fall on the administrator of the school to provide a lot of detailed information.”

As with any business, of course, it’s also not a given that Providence will survive in the long run, but early signs are promising. Johnson started with four students in January and now has more than 50—including students from Ghana, Nigeria, and Vietnam. She’s not turning a profit yet, but with the Internet’s relatively low startup costs, the operation is “solvent so far,” she says.

One question remains, however: Can Johnson ever really leave the physical classroom behind? The girls at Hope Hill know about Providence High, and they’re all for it, but they don’t want one of the few teachers who’s ever cared about them to drift into cyberspace forever.

“Miz Johnson,” a Hope Hill 17-year-old with freckles and blond ringlets says one day during class. Her T-shirt reads “Make a Difference,” and her face is a mix of concern, directness, and appeal. “Are you going to be here next year?”

Johnson pauses and frowns slightly. She’s looking into space, but it’s a space filled, at the moment, with needy young women and the warming aroma of taco salad for lunch. Finally she answers, with emphasis: “Yes.”

Vol. 17, Issue 02, Pages 34-37

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