Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Online school keeps kids in line

After shaky start, more structure makes Virtual High click

By Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Tiara Durr, 17, a student at Cincinnati's Virtual High, works as a cashier at Best Buy on Glenway Avenue in Western Hills.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
| ZOOM |
The Tomorrowland vision of virtual schools, with computers replacing teachers and the Internet replacing classrooms, didn't work in Cincinnati.

A year after dropping half the students enrolled in Virtual High School for failing to perform, Cincinnati Public Schools has redesigned the program to give it the stability and structure of a traditional classroom, while offering computer-driven lessons and a work-at-your-own pace schedule.

The result seems to be clicking with at-risk and high-achieving students who don't fit in regular schools because of families, jobs, social issues or even boredom.

"I had some problems at regular school ... But I might graduate this year if I work hard enough," said Corey Blanton, a 16-year-old senior from Western Hills who started taking high school classes after 7th grade. "Schools were more cliquish than they are here ... It's not like I was a troublemaker, I just had trouble finding a group to stick around with."

Even as a wave of so-called virtual schools turns Jetson cartoon scenarios into reality in at least 16 states, Virtual High principal Steve Hawley said his school has learned that most students need rigid deadlines, human interaction and positive reinforcement to succeed.

Especially when it comes to kids who are already on the ropes, like most of the 400 students who sign up at Cincinnati's Virtual High.

"At most truly virtual high schools, everybody and their brother will sign up the first year and then (the school district) will redo it a year later. We are a work in progress," Hawley said. "We're a school where the kids we see don't fit in. We use a very personalized approach. The classes are small and we offer a lot of individual attention."

Cyberschools have become big business in the last decade as charter schools nationwide tap into public education money to fund programs. Last year, the Center for Education Reform in Washington, D.C.,, a strong backer of charter schools, estimated 21,000 students were logging into classrooms from home.

But this year in Ohio alone, state education officials say, about 30,000 students now attend 11 virtual charter high schools, costing state taxpayers about $1.8 million a year.

In Kentucky, where charter schools are not permitted, the state has one virtual school. Since 1999 about 3,000 students have enrolled in the program, which is built on offering additional classes, not replacing traditional classrooms.

In many cases, students at virtual charter schools never see the inside of a brick and mortar classroom, instead taking lessons, reading books, e-mailing assignments and getting instruction via the Internet.

Educators learn lesson

When Cincinnati Public Schools opened the doors to the city's Virtual High School in 2001, students were given so much freedom that they ignored virtual assignments and skipped virtual class.

"I think we went through a learning process. We are still going through a learning process," said Dave Burns, chief administrative assistant to the superintendent.

In summer 2002, the virtual school dropped 410 students. The school had opened with no way to track when students logged on to do assignments and had no policy for ousting students who didn't do the work.

It turned out hundreds who had signed up for online classes weren't participating. A quarter of the dropped students transferred to other schools, the others were considered dropouts.

Proficiency scores tell the story. The school did not meet the minimum 75-percent passing rate in any subject in the 2002-'03 school year. Only 31 percent of 9th graders passed the mathematics test that year.

But in 2002-2003, Virtual High's 9th graders improved in every proficiency category, including citizenship, mathematics, reading, writing and science. Its students surpassed the state standard in writing and reading, while 50 percent of 9th graders passed the math test.

"We have all kinds of kids there," Burns said. "Some have their own children. We have students who are the primary bread winners for their families ... and we have a couple of National Merit Scholars."

Principal Hawley doubts that a truly virtual high school - one with no attachment to an actual school - can be successful in reaching the Cincinnati students, who range from age 15 to 22. But he points out that the students who come to Virtual High all have one thing in common: They want to finish high school.

Seventeen-year-old Tiara Durr said her family depends on her income. But going to regular school cut into her work as a cashier at Best Buy, and she couldn't get the hours she needed and attend all-day classes.

"It's to help out my mom," the Western Hills senior said. "I've been here since it opened. ... I have class two days a week and I work at home ... And whenever you need help, they are always there."

The Virtual High School - seven classrooms tucked into the basement of Hughes High School in University Heights - resembles any other school, except that computer terminals sit atop every desk and students roll in and out at their leisure.

"I'm the type of person ... I didn't like the regular stuff," Durr said of the high school social calendar that most students live by: Prom, homecoming, dances, rallies, games. "In some ways it is easier here, in some ways it is harder."

That doesn't mean lessons are taken lightly, she said.

Shannon Johnson, who came to virtual high because she was having trouble getting along with students at Hughes High School, said she now wants to make Virtual High more like a regular high school - starting with a prom.

"Last year it was canceled, but this year we are going to sell some tickets!" the 17-year-old senior said on a break from computer class.

At virtual high, Johnson said, she has been able to concentrate on her lessons, and she moves forward at her own pace, including finishing 11th and 12th grade English classes in less than year. She also has done something else she never would have imagined.

"I'm the class president. I shook hands and kissed babies," she said.

Johnson said she will graduate next year and already has college plans: "I'm going to UC next year for early childhood education. I'm going to be a Head-Start teacher."

Standards enforced

Virtual social studies and history teacher Randy Miller said the program is probably more rigid than at most high schools, because there isn't a lot of dead time. Students can complete a course and move immediately to the next one.

Students are allowed to sign up for two classes at a time and are required to spend at least 90 minutes at school two days a week, roughly the same amount of time a student would spend in a regular classroom per subject during a traditional week.

"It is not so much your time in the building. It's productivity," Miller said, while monitoring students from his own desktop terminal.

Even though much of the work is done via computers from home, Miller said the school has adopted performance standards and can track individual work.

Jarius Pieper, 15 of College Hill said he likes the freedom he has at Virtual High.

"I've done a whole credit class in three weeks," he said.

Pieper said he started going to Virtual High after a friend enrolled. He said he was looking for something akin to home schooling and believes he has found it.

"So far, I've enjoyed it. I've enjoyed sleeping in and going to school once or twice a week.''


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