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Nichole Lemmon’s role as director of virtual learning for Springfield Public Schools has taken on new importance amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was as if her life’s work led her to this exact moment, and I couldn’t be more grateful for her influence in our time of need,” says SPS Board of Education President Alina Lehnert.
In 2012, Lemmon began the first online learning courses for SPS. Her efforts grew into what’s now called Launch, a statewide fully virtual K-12 school that serves more than 300 districts in Missouri. Lemmon says 50% of school districts in the state now offer courses through SPS Launch, impacting some 700,000 students statewide.
“To date, Launch is the only statewide virtual school in the country ran through a public school system that operates at our capacity,” she says.
Her work with Launch came in handy this spring when the pandemic forced the closure of SPS and other districts statewide. She quickly helped lead the creation of SPS at Home, which provided every SPS student with online learning options within two weeks of closure.
“While the COVID-19 education crisis is far from over, I firmly believe that no school district in the state of Missouri, and very few across the country, were as prepared as Springfield Public Schools,” Lemmon says.
Reflecting back on March, when she and other leaders began to realize the scope of the pandemic, Lemmon says a light bulb went off.
“I learned that virtual education and the work of my entire career would never be more important,” she says. “Suddenly, a program that provided opportunity to students who needed virtual course access would be needed by all.”
Lemmon said Launch has also had a positive impact on graduation rates.
She successfully petitioned the Missouri Department of Secondary and Elementary Education to allow students to re-enter school at any time and earn credit through Launch.
She was prompted by the fact that SPS had its lowest graduation rate in years, when 188 students dropped out of high school in 2017.
“In 2020, SPS had its highest graduation rate in decades,” Lemmon says, noting 161 high school seniors graduated as full-time virtual students.
“Ensuring the success of students in SPS is my passion,” Lemmon says. “Barriers exist everywhere for under-resourced and underrepresented populations. My goal has been to ask questions, seek to understand, find ways to say ‘yes’ to students and open doors to a diploma.”
Lemmon additionally volunteers with Care to Learn, a nonprofit that works closely with school children in the areas of health, hunger and hygiene. She’s volunteered annually for four years through its Shop with a Hero program and also participates weekly in its lunch buddy program that helps at-risk elementary students.
Lemmon facilitated the development of a high school course credit for the Leadership Springfield Academy, and she’s volunteered for the likes of the Springfield Ballet and the Springfield Regional Arts Council.
SBJ interviews the interim dean at the William H. Darr College of Agriculture at Missouri State University.