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Teens earn diplomas with online program

Some high school kids are getting their diplomas - in 21/2 years - at a special magnet program at Blake High School.

By JOHN PETRIMOULX
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 13, 2002


Students who find the traditional classroom experience boring or irrelevant have long had to grit their teeth or leave school. Likewise, for students who become targets for abuse by classmates.

Jessica Hirsch often missed classes last year because she had trouble getting up in the morning. When the South Tampa 16-year-old did attend classes, her attention wandered.

"I wrote notes to my friends," she says. "A lot of time in class was wasted. There are 30 students and sometimes the teacher has to work with just one student."

What if teenagers could attend school without leaving home?

It's happening, in Tampa.

The Blake High School Accelerated Curriculum Magnet Program now allows Hirsch and her classmates to earn a diploma in as little as 21/2 years, by taking classes over the Internet. The federally funded program represents the Hillsborough School District's entry into the growing world of online education.

Online learning is no longer a novelty, even for high school students. The Florida Virtual School (www.flvs.net) has offered online classes to high schoolers statewide since 1997 and currently enrolls 8,300. But Blake program leaders say their online school is unique and better suited to the needs of the current crop of students.

"Students in each online class come to Blake once a month for a seminar, where they meet with their teacher to go over special problems," program leader Sabra Otterness says.

"Or they may meet to go on a field trip together."

The biology class, for instance, visits the state crime lab to view forensics work.

A full-time specialist links students to career mentors by e-mail. Some shadow adults on the job.

They wind up at businesses such as Sykes Enterprises, which runs call centers around the world offering customer support.

Students can work in any of 12 departments at the Tampa headquarters, including the help desk, operations center or programming.

The idea for an online program grew out of discussions in secondary schools, according to Mary Ellen Elia, who oversees nontraditional programs for the district.

"Nowadays people walk to a different drummer," she says. "A large comprehensive high school works for some, but not for others."

Andrea Admire, 17, agrees. Now a junior, she came to Blake from Leto High School. She says she liked the teachers and students, but felt the school wasn't for her.

"I want to finish 12th grade this year," she says. "Last year classes moved too slow and some of the students wanted to go even slower." The new program frees her to move at her own pace. "You just have to be motivated," she says.

Learning online has other advantages. "Since students aren't in class, we can also go on field trips with our clubs," Otterness says. "Our computer club is going to Universal Studios computer animation school for a day."

Clubs further strengthen the program for students with like interests.

"A faculty adviser works with each club," Otterness says, "and because they meet in the late afternoon and early evening after regular students have gone, the clubs and seminars can use Blake's science labs, video production studios or even music rehearsal rooms."

With face-to-face contact, advisers can gauge whether kids are sticking to the program.

And school computers keep track of student work habits, allowing teachers to know if pupils don't maintain a minimum pace.

"They have a pace chart that shows how much time to spend on each section," Otterness explains. "The textbooks and tests are all online and they can go as fast as they want."

Students who finish early can schedule a time for their midterm or final exam, which is taken at Blake with a monitor.

Freshman Kayleigh Hunter, like Admire, wants to move quickly. Initially accepted into Blake's performing arts magnet as a singer, Hunter, 14, opted instead for the online school. Her ultimate career goal isn't music but anesthesiology.

"I want to finish in three years," she says. So far she prefers the online school to a traditional classroom. "I'm getting more out of it," she says.

Course materials and exams, while different from the versions other students use, meet Sunshine State Standards, according to Otterness, who says much of the curriculum, including assessments, comes from the Florida Virtual School.

To date 80 students have enrolled, including 32 freshmen.

"We had students come over from just about every school in the district," Otterness says.

No more than 100 students can enroll this year, but up to 500 may be accepted next year, and twice that the following year.

"Part of our start-up work is getting our processes and systems in place," Otterness says. "Then there's no limit to how many students we can enroll."

The program software makes some tasks easier. "We can monitor how long students spend on each assignment and how they do on tests, so we can spot areas that need reinforcement," she says.

It also helps teachers see when students take shortcuts.

"If teachers see a different pattern from the usual, they can call a student in," Otterness says. "For example, one student enrolled in personal fitness was supposed to walk a mile, report a pulse rate, then jog a mile and report the new pulse rate. The student reported identical results."

The student also reported the results at midnight, leading the teacher to conclude the activity didn't happen.

Despite the need to watch for abuse, teachers say they like being freed from classroom management.

"With my regular classes, I have to deal with discipline all the time," says Vivian White, who has 28 students in her online business systems and technology class.

Still, online communications can be time consuming, she says. E-mails come at all hours.

English teacher Edie Le Bas says she is putting in 14-hour days to help her three English classes get up and running. "Some of the students have to learn how to use the technology before they can do the course work," she says.

Le Bas, who is also starting a bilingual online magazine with students, says she's willing to put the time in to make the program work.

The traditional school model seems to be suited to fewer students every year, Le Bas says.

Otterness predicts the program will appeal to students who are bored in traditional schools, have health problems or who didn't keep up with classes. Add to that students who aren't looking to school for a social life, such as freshman Ni'asia Vasquez.

"Social life is not that big for me," she says. "I just want to get out of school early."

For more information about the Accelerated Curriculum Magnet Program, contact Sabra Otterness at (813) 272-3422.

- John Petrimoulx is a freelance writer who has lived in Tampa for 20 years. His daughter attends Blake High School's performing arts program.

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