Students get 2nd chances to learn, graduate through online programs

Published: Thursday, April 11 2013 1:50 p.m. MDT

Indie Dunlap, right, works online in a credit retrieval program with teacher's aide RaJean Olsen at Mountain High School in Kaysville on March 20.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

When non-Hodgkins lymphoma invaded Indie Dunlap's 12-year-old body, it stole her childhood and almost took her life. Dunlap is 18 now — four years cancer-free — and she finally trusts in the future. But catching up on all she missed isn't easy.

Dunlap needed a giant do-over for school years zeroed out by hospitalizations and chemo treatments, and for several sad, gray years that followed. During those, she holed up in her room in Syracuse, Utah, certain the cancer would return to claim her. High school life seemed trivial — she didn't fit in there. Doing homework felt pointless. Meanwhile, her parents' marriage crumbled, adding to her gloom.

She drifted along, going nowhere. About a year ago, though, something took hold. Dunlap embraced her life.

"I finally came to the realization of what the future can actually hold for me," she said. "Instead of just giving up, I started planning for the future — going to college, getting a good job, stuff like that."

She faced a daunting list of missing high school credits, but an online credit recovery program supported by flesh-and-blood teachers proved to be the right recipe for getting Dunlap back on track toward graduation.

Individualizing learning

Educational software that meets learners where they are, then guides them through school subjects at their chosen pace, is proving especially valuable to non-traditional high school students. Sixty-two percent of U.S. students taking makeup classes for courses they failed took them online, according to 2012 figures from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Online learning is a popular option for fast learners, too. Forty-seven percent of dual enrollment students — those taking high school and college courses at the same time — took them online. And 29 percent of students in advanced placement courses did them online, according to the 2012 figures from NCES.

Online learning gives second chances to students who might not otherwise find the support or flexibility they need to be successful, said Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning. That means a student doesn't have to sit through a class for an entire semester when all they need is a review of certain key elements to fill gaps and achieve mastery.

School districts are also using online options to provide courses they can't offer in a traditional format.

Students have access to a range of high-quality courses through online learning programs no matter where they live, Patrick said. More than half of school districts use online learning to offer courses otherwise unavailable.

Transforming the Titans

Online learning provided a way for Virginia student Noe Rivera to graduate early from high school and to work school requirements around the realities of his complicated life. The son of a single mother with bipolar disorder, Rivera grew up in a chaotic home where he was abused as a child. He moved out last year at age 17, and supports himself by working at a fast-food restaurant and as a support specialist for Microsoft Excel.

Rivera, now a senior, needed flexible options for finishing high school, and found them at a satellite campus of T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va. It's the school featured in the movie "Remember the Titans," a true story about a high school football coach who unifies a racially divided team on its way to winning a championship.

T.C. Williams High continues to face challenges arising from the diversity, transiency and poverty of its student-body. In 2010, the school was designated as "persistently low-achieving" for failing to meet provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The school was slated for "transformation," a process that requires instructional reform, increased learning time and operational flexibility.

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