Wynnewood Grad Receives Special Recognition
A Wynnewood student recently received a prestigious award from his charter school during his graduation.
Zusil Atkins recently graduated from Agora Cyber Charter School and received the Karol Canfield Award.
Agora’s Karol Canfield Award recognizes a student in Special Education who is either headed to college or a trade and has the spirit and determination to be successful after having graduated with an outstanding academic record.
Zusil began attending the school in 4th grade due to repeated bullying at the private school he had been attending.
Zusil’s parents decided that the bullying and his inability to get a good Individualized Education Program failed to create a healthy school environment for him. So they looked for an alternative school.
“I called Agora, spoke to the Special Education Department, and was blown away by their warmth and welcoming. Agora officials said, ‘Academics will come. Now we need to focus on self-worth, self-love, and being comfortable with yourself before anything.’ That blew me away.” his mother, Sara Atkins, said.
Atkins said people, including friends and family, expressed concerns over Zusil attending a virtual school despite living in Lower Merion, one of the best districts in the state.
“Seeing Zusil thrive also helped. It was hard for him to adapt at first since he has PTSD from bullying. Teachers had to work extra hard to earn his trust, get him to participate, and be open. We were very lucky we had a school psychologist at the time who did cognitive behavioral therapy to help too. There was so much open warmth. The approach focusing on his self-confidence paid off,” Atkins said.
Atkins said by the end of the 4th grade, Zusil made major academic gains by focusing on providing a comfortable and safe environment.
“The academics came once he felt the warmth and ability to believe in himself,” she said.
In an interview at the school’s facility in King of Prussia, Zusil said he initially wanted to be a veterinarian, but that began to change after taking a US government class.
“I took a US Government class, and that helped me find what I want to be. The more I learned, the more I wanted to get involved in making things better. Then I took AP Gov. and then a class on Law and Order, and I decided on Criminal Justice and will attend Penn State World Campus to start,” he said.
Now, Zusil wants to go into civil rights law.
The family credits Zusil’s success to their decision to switch to Agora, where he is an asynchronous learner but also attends some live classes.
“When we left for Agora, we were told Zusil would never achieve higher than a 4th-grade education. Zusil is graduating with AP and honors classes and attending PSU while getting this award. I keep thinking back to those teachers who didn’t want to give him a chance because of his disability. On our way out, they told us, ‘Good luck doing better than we did.’ I think Agora has done pretty darn good and has set and prepared Zusil up so well,’” Sara Atkins said. “We have so much pride. They saw my child and the potential of my child. Just that, for me as a mother, was huge. And they went so far beyond. Before Agora, he felt his wings were clipped. Agora taught Zusil to use his wings to fly.”
Rich Jensen, CEO of Agora, said the school has existed since 2005 and currently serves 5,500 students from K to 12.
“We have students from just about every county in Pennsylvania,” Jensen said.
According to Jensen, any Pennsylvania student can attend the school, but it has also become well-known in special education.
“Roughly 30 percent of our students are students with IEPs,” Jensen said. “I think that speaks to the quality of our teachers and our efforts to make sure that we are serving all of our families.”
Jensen said students might come to the school for issues such as having been bullied at their previous school or issues such as high anxiety.
“We understand that some kids learn better in one environment versus another,” he said.
Jensen said the school puts a lot of emphasis on synchronous learning, meaning students are expected to show up for live sessions, log on, and interact with a certified Pennsylvania teacher,” Jensen said.
In some cases, such as Zusil, they allow flexibility and the ability to work at their own pace. The flexibility, he said, is something the students must earn by having good attendance, completing work, and academic success.
Original article published in the Main Line Times & Suburban