Federal school improvement grants support the transformation process, and at T.C. Williams, they helped pay for a satellite campus devoted to providing flexible online instruction coupled with face-to-face instruction — an effort to meet the particular needs of the schools' students. That includes providing day care for students who have children, and scheduling flexibility for students who must work to help their parents.
Helping students get credit for classes they've failed is one part of the satellite school's mission. Most of the students who attend need flexible scheduling options. Classes that are accessible anytime, anywhere are crucial — to academic high-fliers doing college work along with high school credits, and to students who failed courses and need to recover credit.
"A lot of our students are in need of having jobs to support their families, not to buy a pair of sneakers," said Crystal Patterson, director of academic achievement at the T.C. Williams satellite campus.
The satellite program was developed to raise the achievement of students who are usually described as "at-risk," but that's not what Patterson calls them. Her students are "at-promise." Bright students who want to earn diplomas ahead of time get as many benefits from the new learning style at the satellite campus as strugglers do, she added.
Addition, not subtraction
Cost-saving efforts had nothing to do with the school's online format, said Mary Fluharty, coordinator of online learning for the Alexandria Public School District. The program isn't meant to subtract from a traditional program but to add, she said.
Computerized learning does have limitations, and making up for those requires creative problem-solving, Fluharty said, especially for students in need of credit recovery, who typically need more human contact than online courses provide.
"We've tried creating a space where kids feel truly part of something, connected to it — an environment where they feel supported," she said. That means providing counselors, social workers, teachers with various subject specialties and plenty of structure. Online courses allow the school to extend learning time and increase scheduling flexibility, as school transformation requires.
At T.C. Williams High, satellite students must be on campus at least 20 hours each week but can work that time around work schedules and baby-sitting needs. While they are on campus, teachers specializing in English, math, history and other content areas work with them individually and in small groups as needed. The online courses — and online tutors — are available around the clock.
"The teachers are amazing," Rivera said. "They treat the students like young adults. When kids are out of balance with their classes, they'll try to do something to fix that, to make a plan. They won't really give up on you. Even if you give up on yourself, they won't give up on you."
Indeed, teachers, not computers, are the real key to the program, Fluharty said.
"We need to develop teachers who can teach in an online environment and still teach well and connect with kids, because this is what these kids do," Fluharty said. "They connect with friends and have relationships online, and they need to be able to connect with teachers online. To have a teacher who doesn't know how to do that is a disservice to them."
Equity and access
Critics of online high school programs in public schools often point to problems of equity and access for students who can't afford computers and Internet service. T.C. Williams High addresses those problems in two ways.
Each student at the satellite campus is provided with a loaner laptop that the school buys. Students sign a contract making them financially responsible for any damage to the computer.
The laptops are equipped so that students can connect to the school's secure network via Wi-Fi. That way, students who don't have Internet service at home can access the school's safe, filtered content at McDonald's, Starbucks and other public sites that provide wireless Internet, Fluharty said.
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