Academic journal article T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education)

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

Academic journal article T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education)

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

Article excerpt

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 Preparatory'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. …

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