Phil Powitzky couldn’t resist making “rockstar fingers” for the camera when having his picture taken for SPR. | Photo by Tom Beck.For 18-year-old Phil Powitzky, who struggles with ADD and ADHD, focusing at your run-of-the-mill brick-and-mortar school was never an easy feat. When his friends were around, things could get distracting and Powitzky’s work would inevitably end up taking a back seat to having fun and goofing off. He was always getting kicked out of class.
“With Phillip, I was spending as much time in public school as he was,” Powitzky’s grandmother and guardian, Drema Ricco, said. “I’d hear, ‘Philip has done this or that…He’s not in class.’ ”
Through friends and family, Powitzky found out about a cyber school called Agora about a year ago. He decided to try it out.
“I don’t have any other classmates around cracking jokes,” Powitzky told SPR at an Agora Day Out event at St. Monica’s Bowling Alley in South Philly. (Because the classes are online, Agora organizes various “Day Out” events across the state to provide opportunities for socialization among students. By the way, Powitzky is an expert bowler for his age, bowling a 177 at the event.)
As a result, Phil’s been able to focus more in class, and he’s been enjoying the experience more as a result. This semester, he is enrolled in six classes: game design, American literature, physical science, physical education, algebra II and U.S. history.
“I think it’s one of those situations where sometimes a change of schooling is helpful because sometimes students need a different setting to succeed,” said Family Coach Becky VanderMeulen, whose job essentially is to check up on Powitzky and other students and make sure they’re doing their work. “For some students, they need to have a distraction-free environment or they need to have an environment where the troubles that sometimes come with other students being around [aren’t there]. I think that is often helpful for students who come and do cyber school.”
Powitzky, a South Philadelphia resident, has found teachers at Agora to be very helpful.
“I’m terrible when it comes to math,” Powitzky said. “I’ll always private message him, saying, ‘Hey, I don’t get this. Can you go over it again?’ He’ll do it for the whole class so other people can understand, and afterwards if you have more questions he stays after class to help you and work through everything with you to help you out.”
At Agora, there are two ways to go to class: the asynchronous and the synchronous way. Synchronous schedules, which is what Powitzky has, means he must be on the computer, logged in for the classes at each class’s designated time as the teacher live streams his or her lesson. Students who have asynchronous schedules can complete their classes on their own time. According to a press release, Agora “believes that asynchronous flexibility is a privilege that is earned by students who prove themselves ready and able to handle the freedom of completing class on their own time.”
According to Agora Family Coach Mike Reaves, many cyber school students are students like Powitzky who simply couldn’t focus in a typical brick-and-mortar school. Additionally, many students also prefer cyber school because they were bullied in a brick-and-mortar school. Other students have medical issues that make cyber school more conducive to learning. Some students who are prodigies in sports or the arts prefer cyber school because it’s easier to manage around a demanding practice schedule (these students tend to be on asynchronous schedules). However, the best students are the ones “who have parents that are involved,” Reaves said. “It’s not something where you can be at home without support.”
Dr. Michael Conti, Agora Cyber Charter CEO, is naturally supportive of students and parents having the right to choose which schools work best for them.
“Time after time, we hear from thriving families who had no other options for schooling their children,” Conti said. “Whether students were unsafe, bullied, put on too slow of a track or just need the independence we can provide, we’re able to offer individualized attention that is both crucial and appreciated. Our hands-on capabilities really draw families to Agora.”
Upon his graduation, Powitzky, who is currently a junior, plans to go either to a trade school to become an electrician or study fire science at Community College of Philadelphia with the intent to become a firefighter. He feels he’s on track to do what he wants to do in life, and Ricco feels the same way, too. She also prefers the experience of having her grandson in cyber school.
“I don’t have to yell. He sets his alarm in time to get up for school,” Ricco said. “I don’t have to worry about the girlfriend thing, either.”