Fine-Tuning an Online High School to Benefit At-Risk Students

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In late 2001, southwest Preparatory Charter Schools of San Antonio, Texas, started a virtual school designed to give students a new environment in which to pursue their high school studies. The experience challenged those of us running the program to repeatedly revisit assumptions about learning and administration. Overall, we are optimistic that what we are building will be of significant value to several underserved populations.

In an effort to learn as much as possible about how online learning could become a part of Texas public education, the Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill No. 975, authorizing the Texas Education Agency to invite interested schools to submit an application to join the Virtual School Pilot Project. A focus was to explore how a virtual school might benefit at-risk students. Southwest Preparatory was one of seven charter schools, 14 independent districts and two district consortia in Texas that participated in the program last spring.

A strength of the Southwest Preparatory application was our schools’ strong history of working with at-risk students. Southwest Prepara-tory’s first charter school opened in 1998, with a philosophy of using a self-paced curriculum and individualized instruction to reach students who had experienced limited success in the traditional education system. It is a favorite quote of Southwest Preparatory’s director of operations, Wes Roberts, that we “not make the kid fit the system, but the system fit the kid.” And by summer 2002, about 140 Bexar County students had earned a high school diploma through Southwest Preparatory.

The Southwest Preparatory Virtual School extends into cyberspace our efforts to find new avenues for student success. During fall 2001, Roberts; Jim Neal, president of the Southwest Winners Foundation, which sponsors the schools; and Dr. Gary Short, a department of education professor at Texas Lutheran University and superintendent of the Southwest Preparatory Charter Schools, put the initial design for the Virtual School into motion. Mirroring the self-paced curriculum of the established Southwest Preparatory Charter Schools, the team sought a software package that would allow courses to be built from a series of Web-accessible modules. The package also had to be capable of reliably tracking student login sessions to allow verification of student “seat time” for funding purposes. The package upon which the team settled was Plato’s Web Learning Network.

Plato’s Web package lets administrator-level users create and insert both Internet links and instructional messages into courses. These supplement the tutorial, practice and testing modules that Plato provides. This proved necessary to bring science, social studies and, especially, English courses in line with the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, the state’s standards for public school courses. In addition, Plato’s math modules serve remarkably well for meeting state standards, helping students overcome weaknesses and preparing students for standardized tests.

The last preparatory piece was to bring on someone to run the day-to-day operations of the school. This included the administrative needs: reports, attendance, planning, technical support, parent conferences and interaction with the larger Southwest Preparatory organization. It also included instructional roles: tutoring, course editing, test design and proctoring, counseling and all student communications. I was chosen for this position and began working in January 2002.

Educational Structure

Three rules governed the educational environment: proper attendance, course completion and reliable communication. Attendance was measured by time logged in to the Plato system. Students were required to log at least 20 hours of study time between Monday morning and Sunday night for a week without school holidays. The requirement is reduced by four hours for each school holiday.

An administrator using the Plato system can call up a record of all logins for any student. As this report could not be further defined, such as by date, it was necessary to copy and paste the data from the Web page into a spreadsheet for proper recording of attendance. According to Plato’s technical support team, future revisions of the software should allow a cleaner, less cumbersome method of recording this information.

Flexibility regarding when work could be done led to problems for some students. It was common for a portion of the week’s work to be put off to the weekend, resulting in long hours on Saturday and/or Sunday to meet the time quota. Also, because a learner-level user cannot effectively call up a record of time logged in, some students found that they had trouble remembering to record their sessions properly. Those who failed to log the minimum hours were warned, counseled, set up with schedules to log extra hours, and, when necessary, removed from the program.

Other students developed solid organizational skills in learning to track their attendance. I encouraged students to be exact in their computation and to check with me whenever there was a need to make sure they were meeting their requirements. Students did not like my requirement to write a detailed account of any failure to make their hours, though this seemed to encourage them to take their attendance seriously. A number of students even heeded my suggestion to work habitually over the minimum by Friday to make sure they would not get in trouble, and also to focus on making further progress in courses for which they would next test for credit.

The rule for completing courses may seem to require no particular elaboration. Procedurally, all students had at least five semester courses assigned and would be assigned more after earning credit for a course. However, preparing students to use the online material effectively proved to be one of the more complex, yet rewarding parts of my work. Completing the modules did not earn a student credit for a course; instead, it gave students the right to test for the course’s credit. A student would notify me that all portions of a course were complete, and I could verify that before the date the student and I would choose for the test.

On testing day, students would meet me at one of Southwest Preparatory’s physical campuses. Before administering the test, I would orally quiz each student. When it seemed likely that the student was not prepared to take the exam, we would talk about strategies for reviewing the material and learning to articulate the importance of that course’s concepts. Such discussions were also frequently a part of the e-mail communication as students progressed through their subjects. In some instances, students were encouraged to come to the schools for tutoring.

Because passing a course required passing a test, it was easy to focus a student on the central question: “Do you know the material, or don’t you?” Stripped of distractions common in a traditional environment, such as participation grades, students seemed to quickly understand how to be honest with themselves on their level of preparation with a course’s material. As tests could easily be postponed — and there were multiple opportunities to practice questions similar to those on the tests — test anxiety was not a major problem for the Virtual School’s students.

When a student failed a test I set a time for us to meet and discuss which elements of the material needed further study. This served as another opportunity to discuss preparation, and students rarely failed the second exam, which consisted of different questions — though the amount of time between the tests could vary from several days to a few months. When students do not pass a second exam, they are required to repeat the course and wait until the next semester to test for credit.

The final rule was that students communicate reliably. For the most part, this meant that any question I sent in an e-mail message should be answered within 24 hours. From our first meeting, I emphasized that it was best to respond to questions as soon as they were received, even if the answer might be, “I don’t know.” Training students to avoid putting off responses was an important part of helping them develop more academic maturity.

Generally, e-mail communication proved quite useful in drawing attention to students’ writing and communications skills. Many students needed guidance in learning how to respond to messages, including pertinent portions of messages to which they were responding, writing concise and helpful subject lines, not writing in all capital letters, etc. Many students also needed guidance in how to differentiate between formal “Is there tutoring today?” and informal “R U going 2 B there?” communication. Such discussion opened a variety of topics, including what to expect in college, how to impress potential employers, and how to hold down a job.

Enrollment

To join the Virtual School, students were required to go through the same process as for our regular campuses. First, a student — and when younger than 18 their guardian — would meet with me to discuss the nature of the online program. Those who wished could then enroll through completion of the application and provision of copies of required documents, including the withdrawal form from the previous school.

On Jan. 7, 2002, I began with 10 students, all but one of whom had moved from one of our regular campuses into the Virtual School. Because of the self-paced nature of our schools, it is possible for students to enter comfortably at almost any point in the semester. We also worked to identify students in the regular programs who might benefit from the online environment, which included those easily distracted around their peers and those who expressed an interest in the flexibility that the Virtual School provided. While those doing well in the regular environment were counseled against switching to the online program, no interested student was denied admittance to the Virtual School.

In March, we ran a commercial on two of the local TV stations, as well as a printed announcement about the program in the San Antonio Express News. For several weeks we received many calls, mostly from students who had gotten off track academically during the school year or who were having problems attending their schools. The latter group included several students with serious medical conditions. Under Texas law, schools do not normally grant credit for completed courses to any student missing more than 10% of the school days in a semester, so frequent medical appointments are problematic. The flexibility of when work was done was a particular draw for students with medical issues.

We finished the school year on July 9, 2002, having encouraged all students to use the summer session to complete their courses. Over the first six months of the year, the Virtual School served 58 students, 26 of whom left the program by choice — some moved away or preferred to return to a traditional environment, while others were removed for not meeting requirements. Specifically, a majority of those leaving the program were removed due to a lack of attendance, e.g., not logging in to do their work for enough hours per week. Of the 17 students who attended at least 60 days — two-thirds of a normal semester — four passed at least two courses and five passed only one course.

Reflections and Adjustments

When analyzing the statistics for courses passed during the first semester of the Virtual School, the program shows an unqualified need for improvement. While it should be noted that the majority of these students fall under the “at-risk” label, we feel it should be possible for students working online to earn at least three credits (three full-year courses) each semester. Conversely, a highly motivated student should earn four credits or more each semester.

To achieve this, our first change is to add coordinators for each core subject area. In addition to adding more time and people for tutoring, teachers will be able to more actively follow the progress of students through their courses and help them more quickly overcome any barriers that arise. Whereas during the spring semester time constraints left me mostly reacting to attendance and subject matter issues, it is our goal to make proactive communication the rule for the fall semester.

This proactive focus with more staff should also allow us to enrich the learning experience in the Virtual School. This will include adding new resources for lab work and research instruction. We have already purchased access to the material of Beyond Books to enhance our courses, particularly with science and social studies. The company’s material is in Web page format with well-organized topics, educationally valuable graphical materials, and links to other resources that are accompanied by solid instruction on why and how a student would use them.

The English classes will see the most dramatic improvements. Plato’s language arts material is specifically focused on reading and writing strategies, making for notable gaps in what normally fills out a high school English curriculum. This is particularly true for literature, and while many classical texts are available in full on the Web, we have decided to obtain copies of more recent novels to loan students. Communication via e-mail has already allowed notable attention to writing techniques, but we will begin having students visit the school when their schedules allow for several one-on-one writing tutorials with the English and language arts coordinator.

To the extent that funding allows, the Virtual School will have its own space this fall. Last spring I started the afternoons at our southeast campus, and moved to our northeast campus for most of my administrative work and evening tutoring and testing. This functioned well enough, but with new staff and anticipated increases in enrollment, we will need centralized space for meetings, records and student work. One goal is to create an inviting atmosphere with posters, plants, etc., which reminds parents and students that the Virtual School is an actual effort by dedicated people who care about their work and environment.

Another significant pair of changes will revolve around how students use their time each week. First, students will be required to send an e-mail outlining their goals for the week by noon each Tuesday. In addition to tracking progress, this also should help a student stay focused on preparing for exams and overcoming any difficulties with the material. We will also add some restrictions to when work gets done, requiring at least 12 hours completed by Thursday morning and at least 16 by Friday morning in a normal week. This should allow us to focus more quickly on students for whom the self-discipline of getting work done is a concern.

Our data also shows that students whose parents or guardians were receiving copies of our e-mail communication were significantly more successful in terms of attendance, exams taken and credit earned. The parents also expressed tremendous satisfaction with their ability to follow the progress of their students. Consequently, we will expend greater effort to help parents and guardians who need to become familiar with the use of e-mail.

In addition, a number of subgroups found the online environment favorable to their academic progress. These included teen parents, those taking care of family members, students with severe medical conditions, those who work to contribute to family finances, and those problematically distracted by peers in a more traditional environment. Among the last group were several special education students with attention deficit issues. During the spring semester we shared a special education teacher with another campus. For the fall, however, one of our teachers holds a special education credential and will direct efforts to more systematically identify which conditions and interventions meet with more success in the online environment.

One variable that remains largely unexplored is the role of half-time status. During the spring, one student who was trying to hold down a job and care for her 2-year-old daughter switched to half-time, but withdrew eight weeks later largely due to the feeling that she was not making significant progress. It is my suspicion that 10 hours per week d'es not produce enough regular exposure to the material to allow most students to be prepared to pass an end-of-course exam. However, we will again work with students who need such an option in hope of finding a way to help them move productively toward a diploma.

Conclusions

Much of what we experienced during the spring semester — the program’s appeal to students with certain challenges, notable amounts of time devoted to fine-tuning courses, the positive responses to the flexibility of the environment — had been anticipated. Though other aspects, in either their presence or degree — the strength of the opportunities to discuss writing, parents’ enthusiasm about the benefits of e-mail, the power of the program to focus students on their learning — came as a surprise. It is clear to us that this self-paced, online program holds tremendous potential to bring out previously unseen strengths in some students. But, it will require realizing the program’s potential for these students is in the creative and efficient use of resources, thoughtful planning for the future, and a dedicated staff of professionals excited about finding ways to use their environment to help students succeed.


Online Resources

  • Public Education Information Management System’s Data Standards
  • (At-Risk-Indicator-Code) www.tea.state.tx.us/peims/standards/weds/index.html?e0919
  • Southwest Preparatory Virtual School
  • www.swwf.org/vschool.htm
  • Southwest Winners Foundation Inc.
  • www.swwf.org
  • Texas Education Agency
  • www.tea.state.tx.us
  • Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS)
  • www.tea.state.tx.us/teks
  • Texas Virtual School Pilot Project
  • www.tea.state.tx.us/technology/wbl/wbl_vsp.html

    This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.

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