Currently, ASPIRE has two dedicated, full-time teachers and 20 students. Ben Zork serves as the principal and upper grades teacher, and Julia Robinson (pictured) serves as the lower grades teacher. Photo by Jerrod Robinson
Living more than an hour-and-a-half from the nearest Adventist school, Angela was short on options for a suitable alternative and so she sought God’s help.
She felt her prayers were answered when she came across information about the launch of a new technology-mediated elementary school with the acronym ASPIRE (Adventist School Preparing Instilling and Redeeming for Eternity). During its first year, Noah enrolled as an eighth-grade student.
“When Noah was accepted into ASPIRE, it totally changed his life,” Angela explains. “He loves it and doesn’t ever 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’s more active and confident. He is more himself.”
ASPIRE is a Grade 1–8 virtual school operated by Michigan Conference’s Department of Education. For Jeremy Hall, Michigan Conference’s superintendent of Schools, part of the core mission of Adventist education is to find and nurture students like Noah and to reach as many young souls as possible for the Kingdom of Heaven.
Michigan has 33 schools and 180 churches and companies scattered across the conference’s footprint, and yet, Hall explains, “Many of these schools are inaccessible or impractical to a large percentage of our constituent families, geographically or for other reasons.” Running parallel to this challenge, he says, is “a significant decline in enrollment across our schools over the last 10 years.”
Hall and his team began strategizing to address enrollment declines prior to COVID-19. During the development process, the pandemic struck and changed the school system — and the world — for the foreseeable future.
“We were forced to transition all of our schools to an online delivery platform. And so, in a short amount of time, all of the teachers in our conference had to pivot and adjust to virtual teaching — and they did a phenomenal job,” explains Hall. “This global crisis, as terrible as it has been, still had a silver lining.” This abrupt shift towards virtual learning meant launching a standalone online schooling platform like ASPIRE was attainable in a quicker time frame than originally anticipated.
“We received so much support from the principals across the conference about this concept,” recalls Hall. “They all felt that we needed to do this, despite voicing some concerns about issues like prolonged screen time and age-appropriateness.” At this time, ASPIRE does not cater to kindergarten-age students due to difficulties with their attention span and focus on a virtual platform.
The Conference administration and K‒12 Board of Education have been supportive of this initiative. The Education Department is working with the Union and the North American Division (NAD) towards a path of accreditation and, as of this writing, ASPIRE holds “Candidacy Status.”
There are currently three similar online schools in the North American Division: two in Canada and one in Atlanta, Georgia. The North American Division leadership is recognizing that the pandemic has forced schools and conferences to reevaluate their options. “As we’re coming out of COVID, we have to re-imagine Adventist education in the future,” said Arnie Neilson, NAD Education director, “and it may well include blended education.”
Today education faces many challenges — primarily, educators are now far less able to predict the future due to the coronavirus. “At this point, the only constant is inconsistency,” Hall says with a laugh. “So, it’s important that we continually evolve and try our best to peek around the corners of life and ask the Lord to lend us the foresight necessary to help Adventist education exist until He returns. I see this platform as being a critical piece of that mission.”
Hall emphasizes that ASPIRE is not meant to replace brick-and-mortar Adventist schools. “The relationships, physical touch and in-person interaction that students experience in the context of a classroom is something that cannot ever be replicated through a virtual platform,” he says. “That is definitely one drawback of this kind of learning platform.”
Rather than superseding face-to-face instruction, ASPIRE is one of multiple offerings from which families can choose to best meet their individual needs. Offering live instruction and instant feedback, ASPIRE creates the uniquely personal and interactive virtual education experience some parents and students seek.
Families also have the option of sending students to Griggs International Academy, a distance education system serving elementary and secondary students, owned and operated by Andrews University. Like ASPIRE, Griggs provides high-quality Adventist education. However, ASPIRE provides an experience closer to in-person schooling, whereas Griggs can be likened to an asynchronous platform.
“Parents have approached us about enrolling their children in ASPIRE,” says Hall. “When they found out we offered live courses four days a week, they voiced that they needed something more flexible and self-paced. We were happy to point them towards our sister school, Griggs International Academy. Likewise, when families want a classroom-like experience from their homes, ASPIRE is the ideal choice.”
Currently, ASPIRE has two dedicated, full-time teachers and 20 students. Ben Zork serves as the principal and upper grades teacher, and Julia Robinson serves as the lower grades teacher. With more than 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 of 20 or more students, someone can disappear in the back where he or she may struggle to see and hear. With ASPIRE, those challenges are reduced, if not eliminated.”
Robinson acknowledges the need to pay careful attention to the amount of technology students interact with on a daily and weekly basis, and this factored in their decision to eliminate Friday classes. “We’ve tried to be very mindful and intentional with everything we do,” she says. Despite a four-day schedule, ASPIRE is able to meet the NAD educational standards and benchmarks, due to the streamlined transitions between classes and other time efficiencies a platform like this affords.
To incorporate face-to-face interaction, plans are in the works to host “capstone weekends” once a quarter in a post-COVID world. During these three-day retreats, ASPIRE students and their families can gather together to further build school spirit and camaraderie in a face-to-face environment.
God is already working through ASPIRE as Noah shared with his mom and principal that he wants to study for baptism and join the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Currently, the school is coordinating with his local church to help bring that to fruition. With God’s blessing, ASPIRE delivers Adventist education to students like Noah that might not otherwise have it and helps educators continually adjust to the present times.
If you are a Michigan Conference member and would like more information about ASPIRE, please contact Ben Zork at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you have a child in grades K-12 and would like more information, please contact LaRonda Forsey at email@example.com.
Freelance writer Danni Thaw started her writing career when she worked for the Integrated Marketing & Communication team at Andrews University.