Evelyn Sisk wasn’t sure she would ever attend her own high school graduation.
Or even graduate at all, Sisk said.
“I have never been good at going to school in the first place. I had to sit for eight hours on end and not move around. And I have serious ADHD.”
That poor attention span and hyperactivity made school unappealing, even though Sisk did not struggle with the work itself, garnering A’s and B’s on report cards.
“I would end up attending like three out of five days a week,” she said, recalling that during a two-year stint at a private school, she had 40 absences in one school year.
But there Sisk was on Wednesday, June 8, crossing a stage to accept her diploma at the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds as she and other seniors attended Walla Walla Online’s graduation.
The program is a component of Walla Walla Public Schools, and 2022 is the first year Walla Walla Online has presented a traditional graduation in its own right, Director Amy Ford said.
Eighteen students graduated from the program this year, walking through an archway of balloons in a procession, wearing gowns and caps in navy blue at the evening ceremony.
Walla Walla Online was birthed by the Walla Walla School District during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. To reduce the spread of then then-new coronavirus, kids could not attend class inside buildings.
Essentially, the whole world went online. And when schools in Washington state were finally allowed to open up and stay that way, some students and their families had come to realize remote learning suited them best.
“Walla Walla Online was created out of necessity to support many students and families during the height of the pandemic,” WWPS Superintendent Wade Smith said last week.
“However, it has turned out to be an incredible asset and medium that continues serving dozens of students and their families who desire an alternative to the ‘bricks and mortar’ traditional school.”
The online curriculum provides learning flexibility for students who work during the day and is meeting the needs of home-school families who want to enroll in specific classes, Smith said, adding that Walla Walla Online presents courses and learning experiences not available on traditional campuses.
It also has something really special for students, from elementary to high school, Ford said. “Supporting teachers.”
As in, real humans in a real office where students can come for personalized help and a friendly face.
“Our teachers are here on site, elementary and sixth through 12,” she said, and the staff meets about every six weeks for professional development sessions.
“They are all here to support and collaborate. Because our office is so small, we really are like a little family … You get to know each other really well.”
Most of the online students came from Walla Walla High School, and 49 of them continue to be involved in some way with traditional high school, Ford said, whether that’s through taking a class or participating in extracurricular activities, such as sports.
Middle schoolers do the same, going to either Pioneer or Garrison middle school for those, based on whichever is their home school base.
Not everything about online school is virtual. One of the requirements of enrollment is the weekly two-way contact between the teacher, the student and their families.That greatly increases accountability, especially for students who benefit from a little extra oversight, Ford said.
And, she can’t lie, meeting with students in person is an extra perk for her staff, Ford said, laughing.
“Teachers love to see the kids. They get spoiled when they are here … and we have snacks.”
Seriously, though, Ford said she cannot say enough about the relationships her educators have fostered with their classes through those regular check ins.
“They can support them in ways that can otherwise be hard in a classroom setting.”
Sisk knew her grades had never been the problem, but it took the Walla Walla Online staff to show her that she was not her own worst enemy.
“The second I started doing online school, I realized I am a good kid, and I am smart. I realized I can work a couple of hours, go away and come back to it again. I need school to work around me and not me working around it.”
This is how Sisk does life, it turns out.
“I’ve been working since I was 15, doing odd jobs, working at restaurants, at an ice cream shop,” she said.
Lately she’s been working three jobs, plus finishing her high school work — a difficult task all the way around but ideal for how her brain functions.
“When I get home at 5, or even later, it’s time for me to do my homework. Sometimes it’s at 11.”
She could never manage all this without the foundation of the Walla Walla Online staff, Sisk said.
“The teachers are so much more welcoming, so much more understanding. I’ve so appreciated there was no stress or pressure. They were like, ‘Oh, hey, you need help? Come in today and we’ll figure this out.’ It was about meeting my needs.”
Joelle Cantu also graduated from Walla Walla Online last week, crossing the stage in bare feet and wearing a medical mask that covered a big grin.
The youngest of nine siblings, Cantu was cheered on by a large group of fans related to her.
That mask was helping Cantu protect family members from COVID-19, she said, some of whom are medically fragile and for whom she exercises much caution.
Remote learning helped her meet that need, as well, including adding a layer of protection for the residents of the Washington Odd Fellows home retirement community.
Cantu has worked there part time as a kitchen aide for the last six months, thanks to the flexibility of online learning.
She’d long planned to start a job after high school, but realized the structure of a work schedule would help her stay on track with school work, she said.
During enforced virtual education, Cantu came to see her learning skills were leaping forward, unimpaired by social pressure or fears.
Free to succeed
“I’ve never felt more confident, of not being embarrassed to ask a teacher or just to ask anything. At Wa-Hi, I was always very shy and scared because of the bullying in public schools. But Walla Walla Online, they support you. I haven’t had teachers like that in years.”
Her parents could see the changes, too, the new graduate said.
“I was kind of a troubled kid, so I did some dumb things. I also thought I truly wouldn’t graduate. But those online teachers truly made me feel inspired. They told me ‘You know you’re not the only one who struggles. You can do this. You can beat it.’”
Sisk and Cantu both plan to next move ahead with their art. Cantu has been drawing for years and wants to apprentice under a tattoo artist to gain the skills to transfer her vision from paper to skin.
Sisk, who taught herself to sew through YouTube, expects to move to Seattle and apprentice under a tailor and work her way up to professional seamstress level.
Both young women said they can take these steps after learning independent study through Walla Walla Online.
Released from the “restrictive curriculum” of a traditional classroom allowed her to see the value of hands-on work and thinking for herself, Sisk said.
“How to learn for yourself … how to do things for yourself … I think that’s the biggest concern of a career.”