Learning Without School: Vermont Students Have New Choices

Sep 29, 2015

Schools across Vermont are trying to figure out how to consolidate services and also expand academic opportunities. As controversy swirls about how to preserve school choice, a growing number of students are choosing courses beyond school walls — in cyberspace. 

One of those young pioneers is JessJohn Robertson. The South Burlington High School senior uses both a male and female name because she identifies as “gender fluid.” That means she (and JessJohn is willing to use that pronoun) does not want to choose between genders, at least not right now.  JJ — a nickname —arrived at that decision while in middle school. At first, she thought she might be transgender. So she asked to be called John. But that didn’t feel quite right.

“I didn’t want to be pinned down for only a boy, because I was so open and I could still enjoy my girlish stuff,” she explained.

We were visiting in the dining room of the trim split-level South Burlington Home where she does her homework. On the wall behind her, a photograph shows her as a little girl, looking decidedly feminine in a pastel dress. A more recent school photo shows her hair cropped short. On this day, she wears a baseball shirt, Bermuda shorts, and heavy-rimmed black glasses. But on other days, she says, she might wear a skirt and present herself to others as a female. She says she spent much of her childhood trying to figure out what to do about these gender swings.

“Then … I came across a word online, some definition of ‘gender fluid’ and I thought to myself, ‘That’s exactly what I have been feeling, like I can go every which way that I want to,’” she explained.

JessJohn says that sense of personal freedom and possibility has been instilled since birth by her two mothers, Julia Robertson and Janine Kirchgassner. Her parents moved to Vermont from Texas to find a more tolerant society. They married last year after being together over 20 years. Kirchgassner remembers her first reaction to a daughter wanting to be called “John.”

“So when she did say that she had that masculine quality to her — the John part — it kind of threw me for a loop because I am a lot older than most parents of a teenager and I grew up with … people that looked masculine,” Kirchgassner said.

But Kirchgassner wants her child to feel free to make her own choices. She also knew that the daughter she knew as Jessica was deeply unhappy at school. JessJohn explained why.

“Because I was just, you know, in the wee hours of the morning I would get on the bus with a bunch of other kids I didn’t like and go to school with more kids I didn’t feel good around, and several hours at a desk and you had to pay attention. And I’ve got ADHD and that doesn’t work well at all,” she said, laughing.

But now school is working very well for JessJohn Robertson. She still takes two courses at South Burlington High, then heads to St. Michael’s College for a dual enrollment astronomy class, and finishes learning at home on her computer through the Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative. It’s a statewide resource that allows teachers to offer online courses to students beyond their school walls. In return for that online teaching, the teacher’s home school can offer 25 tuition free slots each semester through  the VTVLC.  There are also other ways to enroll, for a fee.

This term, JessJohn is taking art and creative writing online. She logged onto the website. “I’ve actually got a VTVLC assignment I’ve got to start writing,” she said, typing efficiently.

A first-person essay. She also opened a portfolio to show some of her digital artwork.

JessJohn is just one of over 900 students in Vermont expanding their curricula through the Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative. Over 67 schools participate, and it’s open to any student in the state. This year, for the first time, it’s possible for a secondary student to take every course online, without setting foot in a school building. About 10 students so far have chosen that route. VTVLC Director Jeff Renard says students have all kinds of reasons to look beyond their school walls for courses — to get a more flexible schedule, to follow a personal interest or career plan, or to be more self-directed. 

“You know every school is a little bit different in terms of the services that they are able to provide in terms of the breadth of the catalog of offerings that they have as well as dual enrollment courses and AP courses,” Renard noted. "And really what this does is allow students to have equal opportunity for access to courses across the board.”

It’s also a way, he says, for atypical students like JessJohn Robertson to feel comfortable about who they are, as they learn. She hopes to apply to St. Michael’s College next year, to study science.