Online schools, blended learning provide varied options for East Valley students - East Valley Tribune: Back To School

Back to School Online schools, blended learning provide varied options for East Valley students

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Posted: Sunday, August 4, 2013 4:09 pm

With the school year approaching, many local school districts are flaunting success with online schooling for today’s busy, on-the-go, technology wielding student.

Online schooling, a format that’s been expanding in colleges during the past decade, is now available and attracting younger students who want the high school or middle school experience, but want to make it their own at their own pace.

“Students choose to take online courses for various reasons like illness, peer conflicts, to work faster and get ahead, credit recovery, or scheduling conflicts,” said Helen Riddle, executive director of the Mesa Distance Learning Program.

The program began in 1998 and now provides courses for 38 districts in Arizona, as well as several out-of-state and some out-of-country students.

For these students, school isn’t about going to prom and playing on the varsity football team; they’re taking opportunities to explore hobbies like touring in a band, competing in dog shows, or walking down fashion runways in New York, all while attending middle school and high school.

Charter schools are also offering such opportunities, such as Primavera Online High School, headquartered at 2471 N. Arizona Ave. in Chandler.

“We have found that when students feel more in control of their education, they are more committed to it,” said Damian Creamer, founder and CEO of Primavera Online High School.

“I have always believed that all students have the potential to succeed when provided with the right tools. As many students and parents will attest, one size does not fit all when it comes to education.”

Creamer founded the online school in 2001 to offer students a personalized education after working at the University of Phoenix. Primavera is building a 13,000-square-foot facility in Chandler for middle school students called the Primavera Blended Learning Center, which is scheduled to open this fall.

Unlike traditional schools with a classroom and a teacher giving a lecture for the day, online students at Primavera complete their lessons online and go at their own pace.

At the blended campus, the goal is to combine face-to-face classroom teaching methods with online learning activities so students can perform hands-on projects and labs led by instructors.

Creamer said the school serves about 6,000 students per year. The students that go through his program still learn many of the person-to-person interaction skills they need to be successful in college, despite it being mostly virtual.

“Much of life post graduation requires strong communication and working skills across in-person and digital channels, and students who have developed these skills early on we feel are at a strong advantage in not only college, but throughout their lives,” he said.

Primavera says it appeals to students who are self-motivated, want to accelerate their education to graduate early, and prefer learning from home. It started offering seventh- and eighth-grade courses in 2011 and sixth-grade courses last year, as it saw potential in building an online middle school.

As a charter school, the distance learning program receives funding from both private and public funds and it is accredited every five years through the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement, the last time being January 2010.

Parents are required to verify their child’s attendance each week with the online program and a minimum of 30 hours are required for the week.

Even though distance learning might cater to a child who lives in rural, remote areas, “geographically, 75 percent of Primavera’s students are located in Phoenix area with other student populations representing the smaller cities of Tucson and Prescott,” according to Creamer’s FlipSwitch website.

Creamer launched FlipSwitch — a company that offers online management software to help track and manage student data for schools as well as allow schools to create and manage courses online to add to the school’s curriculum — in 2011.

Creamer said he designed it to accommodate a variety of learning styles to benefit schools ability to communicate to students.

In that same year, Gilbert Unified School District started the Global Academy and the Chandler Unified School District launched its Chandler Online Academy to provide an alternative option for students and parents who were in need of a flexible education, according to the programs coordinator, J’me Upchurch.

Last year, the Chandler Online Academy had more than 400 students. More than 600 students enrolled for classes this summer, and Upchurch said the school expects at least 500 students in the fall.

“I don’t think it (online school) will take it over (traditional school). I think it will definitely have a place,” she said. “I think, just like studies have shown that people are most productive when they have a combination schedule of working from home and going into the office, like 20 hours a week from home and 20 hours a week in the office, it’s going to be similar for school where there is just more splitting the schedule and kind of a combination.”

The Chandler Online Academy currently offers classes for any Arizona student in grades seven through 12, and Upchurch said they’ve taken awhile to implement the program because of funding and they wanted to be sure they did it the right way.

Like Primavera and the Mesa Distance Learning Program, students go through interactive lessons, have periodic appointments and check-ins with teachers every week, and go through what Upchurch calls, “direct instruction through the written form” by receiving lessons and feedback via e-mail or other means.

One of the criticisms of online school is a perception of having less academic integrity because students have access to the Internet for tests and assignments. The schools said they monitor cheating and plagiarism.

Upchurch said students are required to have an in-person, proctored final exam at a testing center.

But sometimes students aren’t able to accommodate that rule. In such instances, such as when one student was on a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the exam has to be virtually proctored where students are monitored by a webcam and their screen is shared with the teacher.

Upchurch said they want to verify that the student is doing all the coursework.

Because these online programs are connected with public education, most students don’t have to pay tuition, depending on enrollment status. Textbooks are usually in a digital format and integrated into the curriculum with assignments.

As of April 2012, there were 52 Arizona State Board of Education approved Arizona Online Instruction programs according to a directory provided by Kristen Landry, spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Education.

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