October 12, 2023
PA Cyber alumni Jonathan Smith, 18, began college this fall with multiple scholarships and 27 college credits. He graduated from PA Cyber last June with a 4.0 GPA and nearly 10 more credits than the 22 required for high school graduation.
“I have taken many more credits than are required to graduate because I believe education is priceless,” Jonathan said in a scholarship application. “Education is the key to unlocking unlimited opportunities and experiences.”
Jonathan gravitates toward challenges, seeing them as opportunities to grow. Over his high school years, he joined numerous school clubs, volunteered in his community, and attended the University of Pittsburgh’s Governor’s School during the summer before his senior year of high school.
“Rarely are students so involved and excel so well at all they do,” said Mr. Bryan Davidson, Jonathan’s staff advisor for Chess Club and Dungeons and Dragons Club.
PA Cyber’s esteemed student has achieved these many noteworthy accomplishments while living with autism spectrum disorder and other mental and physical health conditions.
Finding His Voice
Before life at PA Cyber, the Smith family endured challenges at Jonathan’s local school. “They weren’t honoring his IEP,” said his mother, Melanie Smith. “They discontinued his speech therapy. He had selective mutism and would not speak during the entire day at school.”
When Jonathan was in his district’s elementary school, his parents tried different things to get him more support. They even volunteered to serve as his personal care assistant and sit with him in classes. Thankfully, a friend told Melanie about PA Cyber, and the Smiths enrolled Jonathan midway through fourth grade.
“Once Jonathan transferred to PA Cyber, they gave him more occupational and speech therapy. At our first IEP meeting, staff wanted parent input on how to help Jonathan succeed. It was a 180-degree difference [compared to his previous school],” she explained.
Jonathan’s younger brothers Andrew and Matthew attend PA Cyber currently.
Melanie credits PA Cyber for Jonathan’s academic and social transformation. “Whatever you want to put in it is what you’ll get out,” she said. “PA Cyber is the whole package, from the social aspect to parents having more control over what is being taught. There’s no bullying, because everyone is very welcoming, even if you’re different. It’s very inclusive.”
“He has experienced phenomenal growth,” she said. “Now he’s an outgoing social butterfly.”
Stretching His Wings
“Jonathan is one of the friendliest students that I have encountered, but his social skills are equally matched by his academic abilities,” said Mr. Benjamin Gelzheiser, Jonathan’s high school sociology and psychology teacher and debate club advisor.
At PA Cyber’s western graduation ceremony in June 2023, Jonathan wore an array of colorful cords around his neck, each one representing a different club that he belonged to. Throughout high school, he participated in dozens of clubs, workshops, and other school programs.
Jonathan especially enjoyed the clubs he held leadership roles in, such as Spanish Club and Dungeons and Dragons Club. As dungeon master in D&D, Jonathan explained he ran the game’s story. “I create the world that everyone participates in. I tell them what they see.”
He plays Dungeons and Dragons with his family as well. Melanie shared what it’s like playing D&D with him: “Jonathan’s style at home is sneaky and tricky. He had me buy a ring at a store. I spent all my money to buy it. As soon as I walked out the door, robbers came and stole the ring. I spent the next two games trying to track down the robbers. That’s his style.”
Jonathan has participated in many enrichment activities at PA Cyber’s Greensburg Regional Office, including cooking, technology, improv, and guitar classes. “The class sizes are typically small, and you get to know other kids well,” said Melanie. Her sons have met some of their best friends in ArtReach and other on-site activities.
“In PA Cyber, you become friends with the whole family,” Melanie said. “There are six to eight families that we get together with on a regular basis. We do holiday parties, birthday parties, dances, and trick-or-treating. It’s like one big family. It’s a better way of socializing. You get interaction with the whole spectrum of ages.”
Last spring Jonathan was awarded the $1,000 Lori Conkle Memorial Scholarship, which was created by PA Cyber’s Special Education Association and the Conkle family to commemorate PA Cyber’s teacher who passed away suddenly in 2021. The scholarship is awarded to a PA Cyber graduate with an IEP who plans to attend college or trade school. This is the second year the scholarship has been awarded.
Teresa Martin, a special education teacher at PA Cyber and president of the Special Education Association, said of the scholarship: “I am thrilled to be able to honor a wonderful teacher and friend whose life’s short journey was to give special education students encouragement that they can be productive members of society without excuses.”
Then in July Jonathan received the $10,000 Passavant Memorial Homes Foundation (PMHF) Community Service Scholarship, which went directly to his first year of tuition at Geneva College. This scholarship recognizes Jonathan’s devotion to his community through church, Boy Scouts, and school groups.
Jonathan plans to be a psychologist so he can treat people with disabilities and mental health issues. “I will be better able to relate to others with challenges since I have autism spectrum disorder” and other mental health and medical challenges, he wrote in his PMHF scholarship application.
In addition to these two scholarships, he also received a sizeable merit-based scholarship from Geneva College and several grants from his community, church, and the state. With the way his financial aid shaped up, he and his family didn’t have to take out any loans for his freshman year.
Jonathan was uniquely prepared for his first year of college. He had taken nearly all of PA Cyber’s College in High School courses, which allows high school students to begin building college skills and earn both high school and college credit.
Yet another impressive accomplishment is Jonathan’s attendance in University of Pittsburgh’s prestigious Governor’s School for Global & International Studies, which is a four-week residential program on the university’s main campus. The intensive program enabled Jonathan to earn three college credits during the summer before his senior year of high school. His assignments included studying Arabic and completing a group project that looked at how various European countries accept or don’t accept refugees. He explored Pittsburgh’s cultural scene as part of the program.
“It showed me how prepared I was for college because I got to be mostly independent for a month and deal with college-level work,” he said.
Between College in High School classes and Governor’s School, Jonathan began college with 27 credits, which is close to the number of credits a full-time student would complete at Geneva College in two semesters.
Two months into his freshman year, Jonathan has been soaking in all the new opportunities at Geneva College. “I have been able to make many new, amazing friends, and I am learning a lot about various interesting topics, including psychology, social service, humanities, and communication. I also enjoy eating at the dining hall, as it has ice cream every day.”
Jonathan’s development since his time at his former school is simply remarkable. He truly got out of PA Cyber what he put in. And support from his family, church, teachers, and school staff provided strong tailwinds.
In his college application essay, Jonathan quoted author Shane E. Bryan:
I do not have a disability, I have a gift! Others may see it as a disability, but I see it as a challenge. This challenge is a gift because I have to become stronger to get around it, and smarter to figure out how to use it; others should be so lucky.
Jennie Harris / firstname.lastname@example.org
ABOUT PA CYBER
Serving students in kindergarten through 12th grade, the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School (PA Cyber) is one of the largest, most experienced, and most successful online public schools in the nation. PA Cyber's online learning environments, personalized instruction methods, and choices of curricula connect Pennsylvania students and their families with state-certified and highly-qualified teachers and rich academic content that is aligned to state standards. Founded in 2000, PA Cyber is headquartered in Midland (Beaver County) and maintains a network of support offices throughout the state. As a public school, PA Cyber is open for enrollment by any school-age child residing in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and does not charge tuition to students or families.
“Rarely are students so involved and excel so well at all they do."– Mr. Bryan Davidson, Jonathan’s staff advisor for Chess Club and Dungeons and Dragons Club