COLUMBIA — A typical school day for Brandon Cope, 12, can be started in pajamas. For Brandon, the traditional bell signifying the start of classes is replaced with a computer login. The Cope family kitchen in Joplin serves as the cafeteria, and a break to play LEGOS or his favorite computer game, “Flight Simulator X,” takes the place of recess.
“Brandon loves planes,” said his mother, Wendy Cope. “He can talk forever about all the different models."
Brandon was one of about 1,600 students throughout the state in grades kindergarten through 12 enrolled in the Missouri Virtual Instruction Program (MoVIP) on a first-come, first-serve basis for the 2009 fall semester, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. For reasons including illness or frustration with traditional school settings, some students have relied on MoVIP as a means to earn part, most or all of their academic credits and to obtain a GED.
“(MoVIP) is a great option for students with social-emotional issues or serious physical illness,” said Betsy Jones, Columbia Public Schools coordinator for counseling for grades six through 12 and MoVIP site facilitator for the district. “But in Columbia, it’s a very small number of students.”
Within the Columbia district, 34 students in grades K-12 were enrolled in MoVIP this past fall, including 19 high school students.
"Virtual instruction isn’t for everybody," Jones said. "A lot try it and just aren’t successful at it."
In response to declining state revenues, Gov. Jay Nixon announced in October a $204 million budget cut that will take away MoVIP’s state-funded seats. Students may continue their courses if parents or local school districts foot the bill. But the Columbia Public School District will not be paying students' MoVIP costs.
“It’s pushing students back to their public schools or forcing kids who were home-schooled to begin with to look for another alternative,” Jones said.
MoVIP is dependent on funding from state lottery proceeds, and those proceeds are running more than $49 million lower than originally budgeted, said Zoe Brown, a constituent liaison in Nixon's office.
“Given the current economic climate, Gov. Nixon has been faced with many difficult decisions in an effort to ensure the people of Missouri have a government which lives within its means,” Brown said.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is now managing the program on a tuition basis, meaning that students' families or public or private schools are paying their course fees, department spokesman Jim Morris said. About 40 "home-bound, medically fragile and special circumstance" students will receive residual state funding for their MoVIP expenses this spring semester.
DESE is not employing the MoVIP teachers but rather contracting with content providers, Morris said.
"The MoVIP office at MU is open but winding down its operations," Morris said. It is responsible for all of this academic year's first-semester students until they have finished their work, which is likely to be about March 1, he said.
"While anything is possible, we are operating on the assumption that there won't be any more state appropriations for this program and that it will tuition-based," Morris said. "We have to adapt and function accordingly."
MoVIP opened tuition-based registration for second-semester courses on Dec. 16. Classes are beginning with about 75 students enrolled in about 200 courses.
"We do anticipate that there will be more students as registration continues this month," Morris said.
Because Cope can't afford the cost of Brandon's MoVIP registration, she plans to home-school him this spring, she said.
An alternative for Joplin boy
Although planes, trains or cars might be common boyhood fascinations, Brandon’s love of “Flight Simulator X” and specific interests in planes and LEGOS is also a symptom of his diagnosed Asperger’s syndrome.
"He builds amazingly detailed plane models out of LEGOS, then will tear them apart and begin the process over again," Wendy Cope said of her son.
Cope enrolled Brandon in MoVIP for the fall semester because his needs were not being met in public schools.
"Bullying from other kids is typical for children with Asperger's because of their quirky behaviors," Cope said. "The inability to read social cues makes the traditional public school a nightmare."
Before beginning Memorial Middle School in Joplin, Brandon spent the last of his elementary years at Eastmoreland Elementary School. On Oct. 9, 2006, a student drew an assault rifle on students and the principal of Memorial. All Joplin schools went into lockdown, during which Brandon was forced to remain in his regular classroom despite his special needs in situations of sensory overload.
After the lockdown, Eastmoreland administrators suspended Brandon for a day for drawing a picture of a gun, his mother said. Brandon becomes easily overwhelmed in any situation and, in cases of high stress, draws pictures to process his thoughts and anxiety.
“Today’s public schools are not set up for students with any kind of issue,” Cope said.
About 234,451 Missouri children and adolescents suffer with a brain disorder so severe it interferes with their ability to function in school or social environments, according to the Missouri Department of Mental Health and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
According to Cope, Brandon has been given several diagnoses since age 5, including autism and bipolar disorder. Getting Brandon’s special needs met in his past public school settings had been an ongoing battle.
“You have to become more educated than the educators, so to speak,” Cope said. “(The school districts) will not offer you anything. You have to know what to ask for.”
While Brandon still faces academic challenges, he has enjoyed his MoVIP experience thus far, Cope said, and "The teachers have been wonderful with their availability and explanations."
Although his assignments are challenging, Brandon's grades have improved, and he receives praise for his efforts and successes from MoVIP teachers. “It was as if the clouds parted and the sun had come out,” Cope said.
Brandon is currently earning his core credits through MoVIP and enjoys the ease of being able to work at his own pace, on his home turf.
“When Brandon starts to get overwhelmed, he can walk away and there’s not a discipline problem,” Cope said. “And there’s no issue of his forgetting materials because everything is right there on the computer.”
“It’s not just a matter of it being easier than sending him to a regular school,” Cope said. “MoVIP is truly a life changer.”
Between a rock and a hard place
Pat Gerhard of Moberly is in a similar situation with her 14-year-old son Nate.
A lover of the great outdoors, Nate thrives at fishing, hunting and community sports. But in the classroom, his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and moderate dyslexia become apparent.
“For my child, (MoVIP) has allowed him to use assistive technology and other accommodations and get grade-level work,” Gerhard said. “He’s trying to close the gap instead of … just being socially promoted year after year.”
Currently taking his second semester of MoVIP core classes, Nate is excelling academically like never before.
“The technology aids him in reading, writing and spelling, and he has one-on-one aid from me, his dad and his brother,” Gerhard said.
After finishing high school, Nate plans to join the Marines to pay for his college education.
With the state budget cuts, Gerhard said there’s likely a chance that her school district will not be able to pay the cost of continuing Nate’s MoVIP enrollment. Because the Gerhards cannot afford the program costs on their own, they’re looking for other online learning options.
“Obviously our first choice is for the district to pay and to continue MoVIP,” Gerhard said.
Nate is already familiar with the MoVIP system and classes and would be able to receive a diploma if the school paid the costs; only a GED is possible when the state pays for it. Gerhard prefers that her son get a diploma rather than a GED because she thinks it will be seen more favorably by the military.
“We all learn differently, and we all have different strengths and weaknesses,” Gerhard said. “Nate deserves to be happy, have a self-worth and still be educated."
In Columbia, secondary students who have been enrolled in MoVIP will have first priority for the 25 available spots this spring semester in Virtual High School, said Julie Nichols, VHS instructor and manager of instructional technology for Columbia Public Schools. VHS is an online learning program recently in partnership with the district.
Unlike MoVIP, VHS partners with schools around the world to form 25-person classes that focus just as much on peer collaboration, professional development and global citizenship as they do on course content. VHS does offer individual student enrollment packages, but the majority of its members are individual schools and districts. The Columbia Public School District is the first in Missouri to partner with VHS.