LAPEER, Michigan — The appeal of virtual learning is as varied as the opportunities for advancement it offers students of all ages. Even more varied, it turns out, than we imagined.
When Susan Newsome met with Jan Ciaramella to discuss enrolling her then 15-year-old son in virtual learning, she admits to being a little fearful. She wasn’t particularly concerned about the transition from a traditional to a non-traditional academic structure, but rather how she would describe her family’s unique interest in the brave new world of online education to his counselor.
“I feared the big question, ‘why would Kelsey like to sign up for virtual learning?’” Newsome recalled.
And it’s not as if Mrs. Ciaramella had never met with a student who needed to take advantage of self-pacing, or the waiver of classroom seat time because of a job. That’s not unusual at all.
But professional video gamers don’t walk through the door every day.
“Kelsey is a pro Call of Duty player,” she recalls telling Ciaramella. “To my surprise she knew that was a thing. That was such a relief!”
It’s a “thing” that has taken senior Kelsey Newsome, now nearing 18 years old, all across the country (and at times by private jet). Call of Duty is one of the most popular video games of all-time, attracting professional players from around the world to compete against one another for very real money. Once he turns 18 this month, he will be able to compete in even more tournaments with larger purses.
Having gained immense popularity in the last decade, professional gaming (eSports to insiders) has become a $500 million global industry.
“Some kids work at McDonald’s as teenagers; Kelsey flies all over the country professionally competing as well as competing at home in online tournaments,” she said. “As parents it’s very exciting to watch Kelsey and his team compete. We’re very proud and excited to see what the future holds for him.”
The Anatomy of a Gamer
When Kelsey was very young, he told his mother that he would be a professional video gamer one day. At the time, there wasn’t even a gaming system in their home.
“He’s always been outgoing and always had big dreams,” she said.
As he got older, she fancied gaming as nothing more than something to do after school or on his down time between soccer games. Then, after a stroke of luck in middle school that put his assigned seat next to a hardcore gamer, his love of gaming took on a life of its own.
And as long as his grades didn’t suffer, mom and dad were fine with it.
Gaming at the professional level is not for the faint of heart. For Kelsey, it’s not unusual to practice alone or with his teammates as many as 12 hours a day. Because of the investment of time, and the travel required to ply his trade, he needed the freedom of virtual learning.
Now five years in to his professional career, Kelsey recalls his first professional tournament.
“It was nerve-wracking, still being a little kid,” he said. “Most people there were 18 or 20 years old, so I was nervous.”
Kelsey said he and his team did well enough to feel like they belonged. In the gaming world, he notes, if you can play it doesn’t matter how old you are. In many ways it’s analogous to virtual learning; if you’re ready for more, we’ll give you more.
The Virtual Experience
Michele Pfeiffer, a veteran teacher who works with virtual students every day, credits Kelsey’s success in the virtual learning program to his ability to balance his independence with his responsibility to his studies.
“Kelsey has the best time management skills that I have witnessed in this program,” she said. “He consistently attends the lab once a week and takes three or four, sometimes five, tests each time. That means that each week he is completing a unit in each of those subjects. This takes extreme dedication. Kelsey has proven to be an amazing independent learner.”
Kelsey admits that it was a difficult transition at first because he wasn’t accustomed to his newfound freedom.
“You really have to be responsible,” he said. “There’s a tendency to procrastinate at first.”
Kelsey says there’s ample support and accountability for students in order to make sure they stay on track. Mom says, were it not for virtual learning, Kelsey would not be as successful in school or in his gaming career.
“The virtual learning experience has allowed for the best of both worlds, allowed Kelsey to achieve his goals throughout his high school years,” she said. “Virtual learning isn’t for everyone, but it’s a perfect match for Kelsey.
“He is self led and self sufficient, which helps a lot.”
Just like any athlete who has parlayed a hobby into something more lucrative, Kelsey’s planning on seeing how far gaming can take him. His plan is to attend college for basic courses while pursuing his gaming career at the same time – a balancing act for which he is well prepared.
Fortunately, for Kelsey, gaming is a transferable skill – to other games and other disciplines.
“There’s a lot of thinking involved in it … forethought and teamwork,” said Kelsey, whose dream is to someday become an entrepreneur.
Lapeer Community Schools Superintendent Matt Wandrie, who pushed to bring virtual learning to the District as one of his first program initiatives six years ago, believes that virtual learning offerings will become more prevalent at the K-12 level.
“We’ve seen an influx of virtual and blended learning opportunities at the college level over the last decade or more, and we are starting to see school districts following the same track,” Wandrie said. “Kelsey’s story is exciting for us because it showcases how non-traditional methods can lead to successful outcomes for students who learn differently, or have circumstances that preclude them from being in the classroom six hours a day.”
Kelsey will graduate with a diploma from Lapeer Community Schools in June.
The Lapeer Virtual Learning Center, currently housed at the District’s Center for Innovation, is open to students in Lapeer, Genesee, Macomb, Oakland, Sanilac, St. Clair and Tuscola counties during open enrollment windows.
For enrollment information, call 810-667-2401.