Cross-State Friendship

January 27, 2023 9:30 am

Cyber school gives students the opportunity to make friendships well beyond their local area.  Shad and Cooper met in class first, then in person.  Check out their (cross-state) journey.

(As published on

Visiting his best friend is pretty much a straight shot for Shad Spencer and his family.

Fellow fourth-grader Cooper Harrington lives close to the Hampton exit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, with an Allison Park address in West Deer.

The boys are in the same class and like to get together after school to play video games, watch movies or talk, often about what they happen to be studying.

“They’re both very, very good students,” said Cooper’s mom, Tracy, noting that each has been accepted into the National Honor Society. “They’re both very driven kids.”

They also are from opposite sides of the state.

Cooper and Shad, a Philadelphia resident, attend Montgomery County-based Agora Cyber Charter School, as do their respective sisters, high school senior Leah and first-grader Skylar. On Dec. 30, Terance and Brittney Spencer took their children on primarily a Turnpike trek so that everyone could help celebrate Shad’s 10th birthday on New Year’s Day.

The occasion marked only the second time the fourth-graders had met in person, following an Agora summer outing to an eastern Pennsylvania amusement park.

“They took the time to drive out to our neighborhood first,” Terance said. “So we decided we’d pay the favor back.”

Shad and Cooper met as third-graders, developing a friendship when they were assigned as partners for classroom work.

“We got each other’s phone numbers, and we started talking every day,” Shad said.

They discovered plenty of common ground.

“He’s a very kind person, and he’s like me,” Cooper said, “but a tad bit different.”

As far as the geographically distance between them, he said he doesn’t mind:

“That makes us work more to stay friends.”

Tracy and Patrick Harrington enrolled Leah and Cooper in Agora, which has been operating since 2005, while seeking a cyberschool during the covid-19 pandemic.

“In terms of socialization, it hasn’t been bad. I’ve met a couple of people. I met up with one of them, and we went to prom together last year,” Leah said. “Honestly, I just prefer the pacing better than I do whenever it comes to going to an in-person school. And there’s no bus ride.”

Shad started with Agora a bit earlier, transferring as a kindergartner from the School District of Philadelphia.

“It wasn’t challenging enough for him. He would come to us and say, ‘I need something harder’ or ‘Dad, I’m bored,’” his father said. “We heard the calling early, so we answered it.”

The switch has allowed Shad and to demonstrate his intellectual capabilities.

“Last year, me and Cooper were part of the ‘Three Musketeers’ team,” he said. “We were the first three people to have our hands raised in class participation.”

For Cooper, it turned out to be a case of history repeating itself:

“That was actually my second time given that name.”

Given Agora’s emphasis on synchronous learning — about 86% of classes take place in real time, with attendance duly noted — long-distance friendships among participants tend to develop, according to chief executive officer Richard Jensen.

“It is something that I will say is not unusual. I think that what is unusual in this particular case, but we’re seeing it a little bit more often, is how they made the commitment of trying to find a way to get together in a face-to-face type of a setting,” he said about Shad and Cooper. “It plays into part of something that I feel passionate about, that we want to be a school without a ZIP code.”

For example, Jensen recalled observing a teacher conducting class from her home in a sparsely populated, heavily forested part of Pennsylvania:

“The teacher, in the middle of a lesson, kind of stopped and was a little startled. She said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. There’s a bear outside my window.’”

That certainly caught the attention of the students, particularly ones from urban areas.

“She turned her computer around, and right outside her window, underneath the bird feeder, was this black bear. The kids were like, ‘That is unbelievable.’ They were having so much fun with it,” Jensen said. “She was teaching driver’s ed, and she did such an incredibly smooth job of saying, ‘You know, where I drive, that is a real driving hazard. You’re driving down the road, and there will be a bear.’”

Regardless of the subject, Agora’s instructors have made a strong impression on Tracy Harrington.

“The teachers are fantastic when it comes to keeping the younger kids engaged. These kids have their focus,” she said. “They deserve so much praise, because it takes much more effort in an online school.”

She also has praise for Shad’s parents.

“Terance and Brittney make such an effort to keep the boys talking and engaged, and we try to do the same,” she said. “Without parents kind of nudging the kids along, I think it would be much more difficult.”

For the Spencer family, Shad’s Agora experience represents far more than bolstering his academic potential.

“We don’t go out much. We stay home. So he really didn’t have friends, either,” Brittney said. “Cooper is his first friend.”


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