Credit Recovery Software: the New Summer School

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Districts are using online programs to get at-risk students back on track to graduation.

Credit Recovery Software: the New Summer SchoolDENVER PUBLIC SCHOOLS Online High School numbers 150 full-time students who, for a variety of reasons, find the traditional classroom-bound education doesn't meet all their needs. Some of them use the online option as a means of learning at their own pace, or getting an education while carrying a job. Some just prefer the approach to the standard classroom structure. In addition to the full-time students, the school's enrollment includes many kids who have had academic setbacks and are using the virtual environment as a way to catch up.

"We have a number of students who have failed a class and need to get back on track," says Mike Clem, lead teacher, adviser, and social studies instructor for DPS Online. The online school offers them that chance through its course-credit recovery program, using software from Aventa Learning that supplies users with a catalog of classes, from core subjects to electives and advanced placement. The technology allows students to retake courses they failed previously while staying active in their current classes, helping them stay on track academically. The coursework can be done on a home computer or on one stationed in a school lab. Clem says that DPS Online offers its credit recovery program to any interested school in the district. "Usually it's during the second semester, when students are more serious about graduating and school counselors are running out of other options, that we see a significant increase in student enrollments," he says.

The push for a high graduation rate-- always a symbol of academic excellence but now carrying even greater value as a measure of accountability under the No Child Left Behind Act-- has districts looking for any way to help turn around or even bring back students whose poor academic performance is driving them-- or already has driven them-- to drop out of school. Denver Public Schools is one of many districts that are using online learning as an alternative approach to the conventional course recovery system: summer school. After all, a student who didn't pass a class during the school year is no more likely to pass it in the summer, working essentially in the same learning environment.

Online learning's use of video and the internet as means of delivering academic content, says Carol Downing, credit retrieval specialist at the Volusia County School District in Florida, is key to getting more students to comprehend subject matter they didn't grasp the first time around. Downing says that providing the content via digital media enables students to pace themselves and "become masters of their own success....[It] empowers them to learn, which some students truly didn't think they could do before. The idea of putting in the work and passing is not a causal relationship with them." Those attitudes began to change, Downing adds, through the virtual course-taking. Students caught up in their classes and grew anxious to move forward. "They very quickly started nipping at our heels," she says.

Volusia County offers more than 30 credit retrieval programs, from its regular high schools to "storefront" high schools aimed at part-time learners, such as teen parents or working students, and programs in the county juvenile detention centers. The district uses a system from Apex Learning; coursework can becompleted entirely through the software, or the technology can be used as a supplement to textbook teaching. But regardless, the course content doesn't change no matter the location of the user's computer, which helps ease the transition to one learning environment from another.

"The beauty of the system is that any course not finished in the juvenile detention program, for example, can be finished at the high school with the same system," Downing says. "It's welcoming to the student."

The storefront schools offer the same curriculum as the traditional high schools, but without the time constraints. "Students attend school for four hours a day, taking courses with the Apex Learning system, and then they go to work," Downing says. "Graduation rates are very high with the storefronts."

"When a student is told so many times he's a failure, he starts believing it. It takes a lot of intervention to see the success, but then you see a lot spill over into that student's life."

Offering credit recovery gives students a fighting chance when circumstances have gotten in the way of attaining a traditional high school education along the traditional timeline. "When a student is told so many times he's a failure, he starts believing it," Downing says. "It takes a lot of intervention to see the success, but then you see a lot spill over into that student's life. With this, you get the unique opportunity to take students from wherever they are and get them to where they need to be."

Downing has seen her share of success stories emerge from the options presented by storefront high schools and online credit recovery systems, including one female student who had dropped out of school and had two children, then later came back and earned her diploma-- and went on to become a teacher herself.

"We're not just addressing academic successes, but also personal successes," she says. "For the first time, these students don't feel like life has been happening to them-- they're in control." At Texas' McKinney Independent School District, administrators know the district's course recovery program may find many users as a result of new state academic requirements. "Beginning this school year, Texas is requiring that students take four years of math and science to graduate," says Joe Miniscalco, McKinney's senior director of elementary education. "We know that freshmen struggle, and if they fail a course, they've got problems graduating in four years. We needed to get creative about getting kids graduated and not just recovering credit."

The course-credit recovery system the district employs-- also from Apex-- is the linchpin of its two programs, Grow and Go, aimed at freshmen and sophomores who are in need of assistance, and Grow and Graduate, aimed at at-risk juniors and seniors who can't attend school full time because of work or family commitments, or demonstrate an inability to thrive in a regular high school setting. The schooling is conducted at McKinney Learning Center, a high school for at-risk students. Students are able to retake whatever class they need to make up while keeping on pace with the rest of their course load.

"We get you back on track; we grow you back into a normal high school at the credit-appropriate status," Miniscalco says. "We make the kids retake the entire course, plus work on their regular courses so they don't fall behind. Traditional high schools are bound by time, but at McKinney, depending on how fast they progress with Apex, we have kids recovering their freshman credit and continuing with their 10th-grade credit in the same year." Once students earn back those lost course credits, they return to their regular high school.

Because most of these online credit recovery systems are relatively new-- Denver, Volusia, and McKinney all have had theirs in operation for three years or less-- there are no hard numbers available to prove a direct correlation between the systems and an increase in graduation rates. However, Volusia had an 82.6 percent graduation rate for the 2006-2007 school year, higher than the state of Florida's 72.4 percent, and the third-highest graduation rate statewide. And Miniscalco says in the 2007-2008 school year, at least 75 percent of the students at McKinney Learning Center made up their credit deficit and put themselves back on the road to graduation.

As successful as credit recovery systems can be for some students, Downing believes the online option should complement, not replace, classroom learning. "I am a big fan of public education, and I think that a lot of what goes on in the traditional classroom is excellent," she says. "[Computer] labs in public high schools are an excellent intervention, one more tool to help struggling students. But I don't think they should take the place of regular high schools."

Still, there's no disputing the notion that such systems are reaching students who otherwise might be lost. "When the students see progress and get regular reinforcement and plenty of encouragement," Miniscalco says, "both the teacher and student feel pretty good about what they're doing."

Charlene O'Hanlon is a freelance writer based in New York City.

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2009 issue of THE Journal.

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