Jack, 14, of Somerville, Mass., is a student at Greenfield Commonwealth Virtual School (GCVS) and a Junior Olympic-level fencer. He has been a serious fencer for most of his life, and is currently harboring Olympic dreams while he works his way through the ranks of U.S. junior fencers.
Jack maintains a full training and tournament schedule while holding down a full academic load through GCVS. The school’s flexible online learning lets Jack wrap his studies around his training so he keeps pace with his age group academically while expanding his skills with the foil, his weapon of choice.
“I have tournaments every other weekend. It can affect school because we travel to other states, and I get tired from the traveling. The teachers have been great about helping me sort out what work I should do at what times and how to make up classes,” Jack said.
Jack’s mother Tracy said GCVS’ flexibility and the social component of interacting with teachers and other students caused the Sullivans to choose the online school over homeschooling.
“If something changes at a tournament and Jack has to miss a Monday morning, they’re very open and accommodating,” she said. “When Jack first started competing seriously we considered homeschooling, but we liked GCVS’ social element. It has worked out really well for us; the school has been fantastic.”
Jack’s interest in swordplay started when he was around five years old, fueled by what he saw in movies and on television. Fate intervened right around that time and put a fencing school in a former bowling alley near Jack’s father’s part-time night job at a Somerville pizzaria. Dave Sullivan asked the owners if Jack could check out the school for a realistic view of what fencing was all about.
Moe Fencing Club owners Elif and Jason Sachs thought Jack was a little young for fencing, but they invited him in to look around and watch some of the fencers.
“I was very fascinated by the equipment – like how they hooked the fencers to wires for the scoring system – and I got to look at the foils and did some of the footwork,” Jack said.
Then the Sachses invited him come back to fence, and things changed.
“They wanted him right away,” said Jack’s mother, Tracy. “Elif said she had never seen a 5-year-old so focused – able to listen and then follow the commands. Even with his mask on, she could see the concentration on his face.”
Jack’s focus, combined with a natural aptitude for strategic thinking on both attack and defense, makes him a formidable competitor. He tried all three fencing weapons – foil, saber and epee – and settled on the foil because it has defense, strategy and fast attacking.
The Sachses soon took Jack on as a scholarship student. Training one day a week grew to two, three, four, then finally six days of training per week. Karate and a soccer travel team fell to the wayside as Jack began training heavily in group and private lessons and competing in tournaments sponsored by USA Fencing.
As fencing became a more serious part of his life, brick and mortar school became less and less practical. GCVS’ online classes fit around Jack’s training and competition schedules, enabling him to stay abreast of his peers academically while still pursuing his fencing goals.
In a typical week, Jack attends online classes at 8:30, 10:00 and 11:30 a.m. every weekday. He does an extra art class on Thursdays, physical education (combined with his fencing training) on Wednesday, and a science lab on Fridays. He works on papers and class projects throughout the day until fencing training at 6:30 p.m. He interacts with teachers and other students during online classes, and can also contact teachers through an internal messaging system.
Jack has also gone to a few of GCVS’s social events – picnics, trips to the Boston Museum of Science – when his training allows, and has become friends with other students.
“Everyone in the program has been really nice. I’ve gotten a lot of support from classmates. They think it’s awesome that I’m a fencer,” Jack said.
As Jack climbs the ranks of U.S. fencers, GCVS enables his academic goals to keep pace with his athletic goals.
“I definitely want to go to a college with a fencing team,” he said. “Ivy League would be great.”