Just months into its first year, Austin’s VOISE (Virtual Opportunities Inside a School Environment) High School has great cause to boast about its student’s progress, with 84 percent of all freshmen on track to graduate with their class, and many having a 3.0 or better grade-point average.

Fifteen-year-old Aaryn Marquise Finklea, is one of VOISE’s brightest rising stars. Finklea, who has had perfect attendance for the past six school years and has a 3.85 grade point average, says he likes VOISE because of its online curriculum.

“It’s better than a book,” Finklea said. “It’s always up to date.” Finklea also said he likes VOISE, because “it is small and everyone knows one another and they are friendly.” Finklea’s goal is to achieve and maintain a 4.0 average throughout his remaining high school years. He also plans to maintain his perfect attendance record.

At VOISE, each student uses a laptop computer in each class. The teachers use a smart board as students progress through the on-line APEX curriculum, which is the same curriculum used for Illinois Virtual High Schools for credit recovery. Using APEX, the students work at their own pace. They can complete a lesson and take an online quiz to test for comprehension and obtain immediate feed back.

Finklea, who has always been a good student, says he believes the reason why he does well at VOISE is because the classes are small and he can work at his own pace and on his own level.

One of the things he likes most about attending VOISE is that every family gets a desktop computer to use within their homes. As an extracurricular activity, on Saturday morning he helps distribute computers to the students.

VOISE is a hybrid school, combining the best of traditional school experience with distance-learning practices and opportunities. It is one of Chicago Public Schools’ Renaissance 2010 neighborhood schools and shares the Austin High School campus at 231 N. Pine with Austin Poly Technology High School and Austin Business and Entrepreneurial Academy. All three schools are on separate floors with their own students, curriculums and principals.

Principal Todd R. Yarch welcomed VOISE’s first freshman class in September. Even though his expectations were high, Yarch said in the short time VOISE has been open, the students have exceeded his expectations and those of Chicago Public Schools.

Currently 84 percent of VOISE’s students are on track for graduation, meaning the students have successfully completed, to date, the required number of credits to graduate in 2012.

VOISE has a student capacity of 150. There are currently 147 students enrolled. The class size range from 20 to 26. There are nine teachers, including two special education teachers, and an assistant principal.

“VOISE teachers are committed to their students’ success,” Yarch said. “It is not uncommon to have four or five teachers present during Saturday school, which is designed to give students extra help.”

Yarch is a first-time principal and former social studies teacher at Simeon Vocational High School for eight years.

Finklea, a lifelong Austin resident, is the eldest of three children being raised by a single mother. He has an 11-year-old brother, Byran, and a 6-year-old sister, America. He says has a great relationship with his younger siblings and sees himself as a role model for them.

“I help them with their homework,” he said. “They look up to me. They try to do well. They try to get good grades and go to school everyday.”

He also has a great relationship with his mother, Anitra. “My mom is always encouraging us to do our best,” Finklea said. “We enjoy talking together about school and other world topics.”

They also share a love of reading and often discuss with one another something they have read about. Finklea especially likes reading game magazines. Although his father, Bernard, doesn’t live with them, Finklea says he has a good relationship with him as well.

“He comes to visit and he is always encouraging me to do well,” Finklea said.

He wants to attend Illinois Technological Institute and become a graphic artist and creator of video games. Although he enjoys playing video games and watching reality television shows, Finklea’s favorite pastime is surfing the Internet.

“I like surfing the Internet and finding new things,” Finklea said. “I like finding the latest technology. I like finding out what’s going on around the world.”

Finklea studies hard in the eight subjects he takes, which include math, reading, writing, biology, world studies, health and gym.

“Biology is my favorite,” he said, “because we get to dissect frogs and learn about the human body.”

He says he spends at least two hours a night studying at home. Using an online typing tutor, Finklea has become a great typist, which also contributes to his success. He is especially proud of this accomplishment, “because some of my classmates can’t do it.”

Since the world is celebrating African-American history month, I asked Finklea to comment on his favorite person in African-American history.

He responded that his favorite person is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I admire Dr. King because he taught all things are possible, and that everyone should have an equal education,” he said. “I was most impressed with his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. I learned about it in world studies class during a PowerPoint presentation. I knew a little bit about him before from reading books. I liked the way he spoke and that he was for non-violence.”

Finklea said if he could advise students everywhere on the best path to take toward success, he would advise them to “stay in school, study hard, pay attention to what the teacher is saying and set goals for yourself.”

Editor’s note: Loretta Ragsdell will profile Austin high school students this spring, teens recommended by principals for their exceptional academics and community activism. If you know of Austin high school students we should profile, please contact Terry Dean, editor, at tdean@wjinc.com.