PA Cyber student overcomes Asperger's, earns National Merit Scholarship

MECHANICSBURG, Pa., June 27, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- In ninth grade, Colin Knott became so frustrated with school that he decided to drop out.

Today this young man with Asperger's syndrome is a National Merit Scholar, his high test scores ranking him among the academic elite of this year's high school graduates.

"He found out at what age he could legally leave school, and he was counting the days," said his mother, Marilyn Knott. "I wondered if our oldest son, as bright as he is, would ever graduate from high school. I knew we had to do something."

That "something" turned out to be the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. Halfway through ninth grade, Colin enrolled in PA Cyber, where the ability to work at his own pace eased his frustrations and finally allowed him to express - in the words of one of his new teachers - his "great joy in learning."

Colin put it this way: "If I hadn't found out about PA Cyber, I'd be lucky to be flipping burgers now."

His achievement in winning a National Merit Scholarship was recognized on Saturday, June 22, during Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School eastern commencement exercises. He walked across the stage of The Forum at the State Capitol in Harrisburg and was handed his high school diploma by CEO Dr. Michael J. Conti, joining 1,500 graduates in the PA Cyber Class of 2013.

A Messiah College National Merit Scholar

Colin Knott has been awarded a $2,000 Messiah College National Merit Scholarship, renewable annually during his undergraduate career. Messiah College is a Christian college of the liberal and applied arts and sciences, located a mere 10 minutes from his home in Mechanicsburg, Pa.

Messiah College also awarded Colin a President's Scholarship that will pay 60 percent of his tuition and fees, making a college degree there financially feasible for his family. He is to attend classes there this fall, majoring in accounting.

Colin has already earned 25 college credits from Messiah College, most through the PA Cyber Advanced Placement Alternatives early college program, along with additional credits for getting a 5 - the highest possible score - on the Advanced Placement Calculus exam. The Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth also paid tuition for six hours of credits earned through high scores when he took the SAT in seventh and eighth grades.

Only about 15,000 graduating seniors score high enough on the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test to be named National Merit Finalists, and only half of those less than 1 percent of the 1.5 million students who take the test each year - receive National Merit Scholarships.

Four short years ago this young man saw school as jail and couldn't wait to break out.

Teaching style didn't fit learning style

Colin is the eldest of three children of Dilwyn and Marilyn Knott. Dad is a surveyor. Mom is a certified public accountant who chooses to be a homemaker. Colin's brother Kevin is 11, sister Caryn is 15.

Colin is highly verbal and direct, even blunt, in his interaction with others. He is devoid of pretense, has a quick mind and a sense of humor that is both quick and blunt.

"Asperger's is a high-functioning form of autism," he said. "In my mind it's more of a super powers thing."

Colin was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome in kindergarten and has had an IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) ever since. As he got older, he often participated in educational team meetings to discuss and adjust his own IEP, which addresses both his special needs and gifted educational needs.

For Colin's sake his family moved to a new school district in Mechanicsburg, Pa., because class sizes were smaller and the special education department was well-regarded.

In class he was assisted by a full-time aide, called a TSS for "therapeutic support staff." He took prescription medications to help his mental focus.

He has needed neither the aide nor the medications since the switch to PA Cyber.

Colin said, "I maintained good grades though elementary and middle school but it took a lot of prodding on my parents' part."

He had no trouble comprehending the instructional material but was bored and irritated with how it was presented. He came to the conclusion that his learning style "was not compatible with their teaching style."

He said, "The work was always at a weird pace. It wasn't that it was too fast for me; it was too slow for me. I'm one of those people who learn by doing. Having us sit in front of a one-hour video and then write an essay about it that didn't go well."

The aide "helped a lot but it wasn't enough," said his mother. She said the school district, for the most part, tried very hard to help Colin. "Despite all the accommodations it didn't work."

He was failing human health class because he couldn't discuss such things in small student groups. In upper level classes that were lecture-based, "We asked them to give him the materials in writing, but some teachers were convinced that Colin needed to conform."

Seeking an educational alternative

Colin's frustration with school was magnified by his grief at the loss of his maternal grandmother, Eileen Wolfe, as he began his ninth grade year. Mrs. Wolfe lived with the family for six months before dying of cancer in September 2009.

"My grandma died as I was going into high school," he said. "I was already pretty close but when she moved in we got really close. I spent as much time with her as I could. I felt like she was the only one in my family who really understood me. She was pretty much my best friend."

There came one day in December that year, when things had gotten so bad for Colin that his mother couldn't bear to wake him up when it was time to go to school.

When he did get up, he and his mom talked about cyber school as an alternative. They got online, researched different schools, and called friends who had children in cyber school. They tentatively chose PA Cyber and began discussions with the school's admissions and special education departments.

PA Cyber Special Education Academy Leader Mike Shoaf said, "His family encouraged Colin to try PA Cyber before giving up, and after discussion he agreed to give it a shot. We're glad he did. He is a very talented young man and we are proud of him."

"It didn't take much discussion; I was interested in cyber school from the moment she pointed it out," Colin said.

PA Cyber's wide selection of self-paced high school courses was an attraction for Colin. "The definite thing for me was the ability to work at my own pace, and the flexible class schedule," he said.

One of the few virtual classes he took with PA Cyber was Advanced Placement Calculus, required in order to take the AP exam for college credit. Teacher Joan Cartledge found Colin to be a hard-working, motivated student. She said other students appreciated Colin's input and it was a pleasure to teach him.

"Colin has a great joy in learning, and great excitement when he grasps something. He has good insights. He would ask, 'Will that lead to this?' He could see where things were going," she said.

This fall Colin will commute daily the short distance to Messiah College, where he is registered for 16 credit hours for the fall semester.

Colin is already comfortable with taking college classes and knows the Messiah campus. The independent learning style of cyber school is well-suited to college course work. And, the higher challenge of college academics will keep his intellect engaged.

His mother believes those factors will help Colin the almost-high school dropout find success as a full-time college student.

Contact Jill Valentine, 724.624.0473

SOURCE PA Cyber Charter School