Rochester, N.Y. – School of the Arts seniors Cassandra Coley and Shalimar Lake would not be graduating with their classmates if not for online courses.
“Not only can you get a credit back that you missed, you can also do it really quickly and move on from it,’ said Shalimar.
“I liked it better personally than taking a class in school because it was more personal and I could do it on my time and my pace,” said Cassandra.
The Rochester City School District has expanded its online offerings this school year to 17 courses at all high schools. It is also planning to offer online classes to incarcerated youth. Students can take an online class only if they have failed it.
The district has spent about $300,000 on the programs developed by Aventa. Some of the courses follow New York State curriculum and culminate in Regents exams. Others follow district-specific courses.
“It is not a good fit for 100 percent of the students,” said Glen Van Derwater, who is heading up the district’s program. “It does require a certain level of maturity of students that are taking this seriously.”
The district tested the program at two schools in 2009-10. Last school year, 1,184 students enrolled in online courses district-wide, with 470 students recovering 635 courses. Because not all students took the classes for credit or ever showed up to class, Van Derwater considers the failure rate to be about one-third. Ninth-graders did not perform well in the pilot programs and would likely not be offered online classes in the future.
“It’s not a silver bullet for everything, but it is a way to recapture some of our students who are struggling,” Van DerWater said.
Van Derwater said the classes work for some students. An online English class at East High School had a 100 percent passing rate on the Regents exam. School of the Arts graduated six additional students last year because of online courses.
“Some students have actually broken down crying because they’ve been able to catch up with their graduating cohort, be able to accomplish more in a school year than they would have traditionally been able to do,” said Van Derwater.
The state limits the amount of online credits a student can take to 10.5.
There is an online class for physical education, but students are limited to only a half a credit. The class focuses on wellness and nutrition and the school gym teacher supervises.
In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education said there was little evidence to support online learning in elementary and secondary schools and that more study is needed.
How it Works
Students are assigned to a computer lab for a period a day. They can take one or more online courses at the same time. They listen to audio instructions, read material, and take multiple choice quizzes. Some classes require essays and projects.
Each student’s work is graded through automation or by a remote tutor, who is available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Students can access course material at home. A district survey showed 65% of students have Internet access at home.
The school has the power to override a grade. The software has safeguards against cheating. Teachers can red flag when a student has not spent a lot of time using the program.
There is always a certified teacher in the computer lab, but students are taking courses in multiple subject areas. Therefore, students are paired with an on-site teacher who specializes in the coursework. The students and teachers are required to meet in person on a regular basis.
The approach is considered a “blended” online course, meaning students and teachers have in-person interaction, rather than students going through the course alone.
The Rochester Teachers Association so far is supporting the model, because it requires teacher involvement.
“We were skeptical, but I’m very impressed,” said Vice-President Margaret Sergent. “It offers children an opportunity to be successful.”