Having the laptop lets Rivera work on classes late at night, after he finishes work shifts. He said it's something he does because he cares for his future.
Despite the challenges of his circumstances, Rivera finished his high school course work in March, two months ahead of schedule. He plans to go into the Army and continue his education there.
T.C. Williams High has seen its on-time graduation rate increase by 3 percent since its transformation began in 2010. Online courses are just one tool being used to achieve the school's goals, Fluharty said. However, some graduating students couldn't have completed their classes without the flexibility the online courses provide, she said.
After her cancer abated, Dunlap tried taking independent online classes during the years she spent at home. Though she's easily distracted, Dunlap is a bright student. But it was hard to stay motivated while working alone, and she made little progress.
She tried re-entering a traditional high school, too, during the year when she would have been a junior. Because she was so far behind, she was told it would take four more years to get her diploma.
"It's not that I have a problem with learning," she said. "I just need credit. I can do whatever they give me."
In the middle of her would-be junior year, Dunlap came to Mountain High in Kaysville, Utah, an alternative high school for 11th and 12th grade students in the Davis School District. It offers original courses and credit retrieval classes in a flexible setting that makes room for vocational training, work-based learning and independent study.
Dunlap had only four high school credits when she entered Mountain High. A year later, she has already earned 21 credits through online and traditional formats. The flexibility of Mountain High's program allows her to take concurrent credits toward becoming a certified nurse assistant at a nearby technology center while she earns her high school credits. She will finish both programs this year.
The quiet, structured nature of online learning works well for Dunlap.
"I have a hard time concentrating," she said. "This gets down to what I need to know instead of filling my memory with stuff that isn't exactly relevant."
Mountain High uses NovaNet software licensed by the Pearson textbook company. Each course module begins with a pre-test that gauges prior knowledge of the subject. Students can move past areas where they have proven competency, and get busy learning the things they don't know.
Dunlap takes careful notes as she works her way through new material and studies for the tests that come at the end of each module. She loves the immediate feedback she receives while working through problems or taking tests.
"You are instantly corrected after a wrong answer," she said. "It gets into your memory."
If a student does well in some areas of a test and poorly in others, the computer provides more study material for the weak areas, followed by fresh test questions. The process continues until all of the material is mastered. If a student gets confused or stuck, a flesh-and-blood teacher takes over.
"I can look at their tests and see what they've missed," said Sharalyn Maughan, one of Dunlap's teachers at Mountain High. "We can talk about why they are not getting it. I can reassign material or discuss the problem until they get it."
Combining credits from her high school and CNA programs, Dunlap will have enough to receive her high school diploma this year at around the same time she would have graduated from a traditional school if she'd never had cancer. After that, she plans to work her way through college as a CNA.
Though online learning is a valuable option for many students, it doesn't work for everyone, said Kathleen Chronister, principal of Mountain High. Students must supply some self-motivation to be successful. They need to be good readers with good comprehension skills, too, she said. Requiring students to do some of their work on campus, and to check in with counselors, is important.
"Our students don't do very well without some accountability," Chronister said.
Online learning, even when blended with face-to-face instruction, reduces social aspects of schooling, and that can be a problem for some students.
"There's a group of social butterflies here who miss that social interaction," Dunlap said of some of her classmates. Dunlap's rundown of how various students learn at Mountain High is as revealing as any research study.
Some students do best in the online environment and some thrive on face-to-face instruction, she said. And some students don't want to do either one, a problem that teachers in traditional schools would likely recognize.
For Dunlap, it was the combination of learning modes at Mountain High that changed her life.
"I realized that I was worth more than I thought I was, and that I had more potential than I thought I had," she said. "That has opened a lot more possibilities."
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