April 10, 2021
Located in Michigan, USA, ASPIRE offers informed instruction and Christ-based values.
Angela Prichard noted that her son Noah was unhappy in public school. He was bullied, insecure and reluctant, and constantly sick from the stressful environment of his school.
Prichard lived more than an hour and a half from the nearest Seventh-day Adventist school and had few opportunities to find a suitable alternative. So she sought God’s help.
She felt her prayers were being answered when she came across information about the start of a new technology-enabled elementary school, known as ASPIRE (Adventist School Preparing Instilling and Redeeming for Eternity). In his freshman year, Noah enrolled as an eighth grade student.
“When Noah was accepted into ASPIRE, it totally changed his life,” explains Prichard. “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 is 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 in Lansing, Michigan, USA. For Jeremy Hall, principal of the Michigan Conference, part of the core mission of Adventist education is to find and nurture students like Noah and to reach as many young students as possible for the kingdom of heaven.
ASPIRE currently has two dedicated full-time teachers and 20 students. Ben Zork acts as the principal and teacher of the upper classes, and Julia Robinson (pictured) acts as the teacher of the lower classes. [Photo: Jerrod Robinson]
God was already working on ASPIRE when Noah (pictured) told his mother and headmaster that he would study for baptism and join the Seventh-day Adventist Church. [Photo: Lake Union Herald]
The Michigan conference has 33 schools and 180 churches and businesses scattered across the conference area. However, Hall explains, “Many of these schools are inaccessible or impractical for a large percentage of our member families, geographically or for other reasons.” In parallel with this challenge, “there has been a significant decrease in enrollment in our schools over the past 10 years”.
An unexpected silver lining
Before COVID-19, Hall and his team began strategizing to address the decline in enrollments. During the development process, the pandemic has hit and changed the school system – and the world – for the foreseeable future.
“We had to switch all of our schools to an online delivery platform. In a very short time, all the teachers at our conference had to adjust to the virtual lessons – and they did a phenomenal job, ”explains Hall. “This global crisis, terrible as it was, still had a silver lining.” This abrupt switch to virtual learning meant that the introduction of a stand-alone online school platform such as ASPIRE was possible in a faster period of time than originally assumed.
“We received so much support for this concept from the school principals throughout the conference,” recalls Hall. “They all felt we had to do this, although we had some concerns about issues such as prolonged screen time and age appropriateness.” Currently, ASPIRE is not aimed at kindergarten-age students due to difficulties with attention span and focusing on a virtual platform.
The conference administration and the K-12 Board of Education supported this initiative. The Education Department is working with the Lake Union Conference (LUC) and the North American Division (NAD) on a path of accreditation. ASPIRE currently has the status of “Candidacy”.
There are currently three similar online schools in the NAD: two in Canada and one in Atlanta, Georgia. NAD leadership recognizes that the pandemic has forced schools and conferences to re-evaluate their options. “When we get out of COVID, we must reimagine Adventist education in the future,” said Arnie Neilson, NAD Education Director. “It can definitely include blended education.”
Education today faces many challenges – especially educators are far less able to predict the future due to the coronavirus. “At this point the only constant is inconsistency,” says Hall with a laugh. “It is therefore important that we constantly evolve and do our best to look around the corners of life and ask the Lord to give us the foresight necessary to maintain Adventist education until His return to support. I see this platform as a critical part of this mission. “
Choosing the best option for your family
Hall emphasizes that ASPIRE is not intended to replace stationary Adventist schools. “The relationships, physical touch and personal interaction that students experience in the context of a classroom can never be replicated through a virtual platform,” he says. “That is definitely a disadvantage of this type of learning platform.”
Rather than replacing in-person tuition, ASPIRE is one of several offerings that families can choose from, whether they want to best meet their individual needs. Offering live lessons and instant feedback, ASPIRE creates the uniquely personal and interactive virtual educational experience that some parents and students are looking for.
Families can also send students to Griggs International Academy, a distance learning system for elementary and secondary school students owned and operated by Andrews University. Like ASPIRE, Griggs offers high quality Adventist education. ASPIRE offers an experience closer to personal schooling, while Griggs can be compared to an asynchronous (on-demand) platform.
“Parents reached out to us to enroll their children with ASPIRE,” says Hall. “When they found out that we had live classes four days a week, they said they needed something more flexible and self-directed. We were happy to draw your attention to our sister school, the Griggs International Academy. ASPIRE is also the ideal choice when families want a classroom-like experience from home. “
Compared to the costs for stationary schools, ASPIRE is at the lower end. There is currently a $ 350 registration fee, some of which is for a Chromebook for the student, as well as $ 250 per month for tuition.
Each student has a seat in the front row
ASPIRE currently has two dedicated full-time teachers and 20 students. Ben Zork acts as the secondary school teacher and Julia Robinson acts as the secondary school teacher. With over 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,” says Zork. “Sometimes in a classroom with 20 or more students, someone can disappear into the background where he or she may have difficulty seeing and hearing. With ASPIRE, these challenges are reduced, if not eliminated. “
Robinson recognizes the need to carefully monitor the number of technology students students interact with on a daily and weekly basis, and this was taken into account in their decision to cancel Friday classes. “We tried to be very careful and deliberate in everything we do,” she says. Despite a four-day schedule, ASPIRE can meet NAD educational standards and benchmarks because of the optimized transitions between classes and other time efficiencies that such a platform provides.
In order to include personal interaction, it is planned to hold “capstone weekends” once a quarter in a post-COVID world. During this three-day retreat, ASPIRE students and their families can gather to further develop the school spirit and camaraderie in a personal setting.
Reaching Young People for the Kingdom
God was already working on ASPIRE when Noah shared with his mother and the headmaster that he wanted to study for baptism and join the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Currently the school is coordinating with its local church to make this happen. With God’s blessing, ASPIRE provides Adventist education for students like Noah who may otherwise not have it, and helps educators continually adapt to the present.
The original version of this story was published by the Lake Union Herald.