These Indiana students overcame long odds to graduate from an online school

For Angela Freel, “the struggle is over” now that her daughters have graduated after a long search for the right high school.

“A lot of hard work, and here is the reward,” Angela Freel said.

What she wanted was a more convenient, stable alternative to a traditional school for her two daughters — a place where they could excel at their own pace without the worries of bullying and meticulous schedules.

Serving in the military since 1999, both as a member of the United States Army and the Louisiana National Guard, Angela Freel moved with her family often. After settling in Indiana, the single mother of two enrolled her daughters in Indiana Connections Academy, a free online K-12 education provider.

Online charter schools are an increasingly popular alternative for students across the nation who aren’t thriving in a traditional classroom setting or are searching for more flexibility. But as Chalkbeat has previously reported, most students don’t graduate from these schools.

But supporters note that for some students, including the 497 who graduated from Connections on Monday, online schools do work.

Angela Freel’s daughters, Dasani Freel and Cazariah Haskins, are two of 497 students who graduated Monday from Indiana Connections Academy. That’s an estimated graduation rate of 52 percent, according to school officials.

Last year, the school’s graduation rate was 49.5 percent, compared to 87.2 percent of students at schools across the state that year.

Angela Freel’s family agrees that the path to the finish line involved a lot of perseverance and initiative — a common theme among this year’s graduates.

“You just have to adapt,” said Dasani Freel, who is graduating a year early. “You do what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it. Be disciplined. Have the ‘I need to get this done right then and there’ attitude.”

Angela Freel said the school was extremely convenient for her family. Freel said she held her daughters accountable for completing assignments on time and studying for exams.

“For any parent that wants their kid to go to school without all the extras you have to put up with in a brick-and-mortar, this is perfect,” she said, referring to her experience with the online school.”

Both Dasani Freel and Haskins plan to start their higher education careers at Ivy Tech Community College, where Freel will study nursing and Haskins hopes to become a certified surgical technician. The two said they will continue their studies at other schools in the future.

“It feels really good to be at this point,” Haskins said. “I’m finished, and all the hard work has paid off.”

Richard Ostergaard, 18, started his journey with the virtual school at 13 years old after missing more than 60 days of school each year due to sinus infections and related illnesses.

Ostergaard has since graduated at the top of his class as valedictorian.

“I had to take a lot of initiative,” he said. “There are people who go, ‘Oh yeah, online school — it’s going to be easy.’ They’re wrong.”

Ostergaard compared his online experience to college courses — listening to live hour-long lectures, self-teaching, and retaining the knowledge through exams and quizzes.

“I am much more confident going into college because you have to have that initiative to get through college,” he said. “In a lot of high schools, you’re pushed to get through high school. In Indiana Connections Academy, you still have that gradual push, but they’re much less likely to pass you through grades even if you haven’t actually done all the work.”

Ostergaard will study mechanical engineering at Tennessee Technological Institute.

Yesra Almalahi, 18, left her traditional public school after seventh grade in search of a safer alternative to a brick-and-mortar school.  That’s when she discovered Indiana Connections Academy.

“There are so many shootings and many other incidents that occur in public schools now so transferring to an online school makes it more safe,” she said.

Since then, Almalahi has completed her school work at home.

Almalahi said the transition was not easy, but she said she made it work through determination and parents’ support. Now she is preparing for classes at Indiana University Fort Wayne.

“I feel accomplished and so excited for this new chapter of my life,” she said. “It was difficult in the start because you make a big choice of choosing to teach yourself over someone teaching you.”