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Lakota VLO Family Takes Learning Cross-Country

Lakota VLO Family Takes Learning Cross-Country

The Piening family likes to think they’ve been “making COVID lemonade” since August. 

In just five months, the family of five has managed to visit more than 20 cities in 11 different states - all while first-grader Cami, second-grader Daniel and fifth-grader Elle continued their “regular” studies (and then some) at Lakota's Liberty ECS and VanGorden Elementary. How? They rented their home for a year, replaced their three cars with an RV and hit the road just as their other adventure with Lakota’s first-ever virtual learning option (VLO) was getting underway. 

“We decided to make the best of it all and seize the opportunity,” said Jaime Piening, who called a family meeting over the summer once she and her husband, Dan, dreamt up the idea and figured out how to make it a reality. “I think we’re always trying to look for fun new things to do, ways to meet new people and have new experiences to learn all that we can. The stars just aligned and we feel so blessed to have this opportunity in front of us.”

Learning has certainly been at the center of their adventure so far. All three kids gushed with excitement as they recalled their favorite stops along the way, all of which they track on a large map displayed prominently in their RV’s main living area. Among them: Niagara Falls, a whole host of historical forts like Fort Mackinack and Fort Sumter, the Kennedy Space Center, Mammoth Cave, Christmas in Key West and most recently, a progression of civil rights era sites. Fittingly, they spent Martin Luther King Day this year in Selma, Alabama, where they walked part of the famous march from Selma to Montgomery. They even spontaneously met and spent the day with the son of Dr. King’s attorney. 

“It’s been really fun,” said Elle, who regularly shares her latest whereabouts and experiences during Zoom meetings with her VLO teacher, Tricia Paugstat, and the rest of her fifth grade class. Before winter break, she even took them inside the Kennedy Space Center. 

“I just wanted to stop my day there and say, ‘We’re done. We’ve learned everything that we need to learn today’,” joked Paugstat, who treats Elle’s adventures as learning opportunities for the whole class, regardless of how they fit in with that day’s lessons. “We get to all live vicariously through Elle’s adventures.” 

Their travels have brought about some non-traditional lessons for the family like how to start a fire, make new friends wherever they go, filet a catfish and try new foods, just to name a few. They’ve even learned how to be flexible and accommodating with one another, using the phrase “quiet on the set” when someone has an important meeting or something to record for a school assignment. 

Beyond their travel adventures, both parents have also witnessed other forms of real world learning that the VLO has inspired in all three of their kids. 

“There’s a lot of college skills they’re learning right now in VLO,” said Dan, citing such skills as self-guided learning, time management, taking advantage of office hours and even writing an email. “They’ve learned to take initiative in their own learning. Just seeing the growth that they’ve made as independent learners has been really amazing,” Jaime added. 

All of this has been possible, both parents agree, because of the delicate balance of both structure and flexibility built into Lakota’s VLO. Calling it a “gift,” as parents they’ve appreciated the level of support and accommodation they’ve received every step of the way. 

“It’s so cool that they’ve had teachers from their own building and we still feel connected to our school communities even while we are so far away,” Jaime said. 

And whether they know it or not, all three kids have probably gotten some dose of a life lesson in another newfound family motto: Where there’s a will, there’s a way. The Piening family has certainly put those words into action this year.  


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