Staff Spotlight: Linda Cunningham, Principal of Options Indiana
Options Indiana is one of the fastest growing online high schools and online learning platforms in the State of Indiana. We sat down with Principal Linda Cunningham to discuss the evolution of Options Indiana and how it’s been so successful at transforming the way students learn and enrich their education.
What is your history in education before Options?
Before Options, I did a lot of contract work for teachers who were out on maternity or sick leave. While coaching in Frankton, IN, I was hired to teach a ‘Reading for Leisure’ course, which I enjoyed.
I eventually moved on to Madison County Youth Center, where I taught at-risk youth. Because they weren’t sentenced there, the kids didn’t stay for long. It was really a revolving door there. This made me realize that I wanted to teach students over a longer period of time and build relationships with them.
In May of 2000, I was hired at Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility, where I taught until June of 2006. I started at Options Noblesville as a history teacher the following August.
How did teaching at Pendleton prepare you for Options?
Many of the students at Pendleton viewed education as an “out” to their situation, or a way to complete their juvenile program. I didn’t experience many discipline problems at Pendleton. The students were very respectful of the teachers.
I was very much used to being an “ally” to the students at Pendleton. All students want someone to trust and someone to tell them the truth. For some reason, I’ve always had a way of telling students how it is, what my expectations are, and being able to create a safe, consistent, and predictable space.
After kids would come out of solitary confinement at Pendleton, they would often retreat to my classroom and spend their time there as opposed to switching classrooms. At Options, there have always been kids that struggled to get along with others, who would go to class, get their assignments, and come to my classroom.
What was it like at Options Noblesville when it first opened?
I was a seasoned teacher who had previous experience working with alternative, at-risk kids, alongside first-year teachers and a first-year principal. I was like the “mom” of the group, a realist. I already understood that we’re not always able to engage students with traditional practices, so we need alternative methods in the classroom as back-up. I’ve learned that the busier you keep students, the less disciplinary issues they tend to run into.
How has Options Indiana grown?
At the beginning, it was just me and about 80 students. Many of them were disengaged with whom they had before, so it took a while to get them going. Once they knew my expectations, the majority of them got going successfully ‒ but I couldn’t grade everything on my own. The following year, we had outside help from teachers who solely graded. We also integrated an English teacher, a social studies teacher, a math teacher, and a part-time Special Education teacher.
So three years ago, there were five of us. Two years after that, there were 19 of us. Next year, there will be 22 of us. Today, it is one of the leading online programs in the state that serves many students.
I was given this program and told to build it from the ground up. The founders had faith that I would make something out of it. They didn’t dream that the online school would turn into what it has become. They didn’t expect that students who aren’t at risk and are deeply involved in extracurricular activities could also prefer online schooling over the traditional classroom.
Sometimes it can be overwhelming when I think about how much we’ve grown, but because we’re able to hire the best teachers, train them, and retain them, we’ve been so successful. Alternative kids are not for everyone, and I don’t want a revolving door when it comes to our teachers. Our teachers are flexible and always available to help students. We’re never out of touch. We’re always flexible.
What do you want people to know about Options Indiana?
We don’t give up on our kids. We believe in our students and talk to them as people, meeting them where they are, and never quit on them ‒ and a lot of these kids never had that. So I really think that’s the biggest reason why we maintain relationships with our students after they graduate. A lot of our students never missed a day of school because we were their home and family. It was their safe place.
Belong. Believe. Achieve.
“We’re very much a family here at Options Indiana, and always have been. We work very hard at that, to know what’s going on with everyone and help when people need it. We’re open and supportive of everyone.”
‒ Linda Cunningham, Principal of Options Indiana
Are you located in Indiana and interested in getting your child started at our online high school? Would you like to learn more about on-campus programs in Noblesville or Westfield, IN? Contact us today for more information!