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.
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.
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.
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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