Sunday, June 7, 2009 | Fifteen-year-old Kevin Groarke does not have to deal with homeroom or the obnoxious clanging of bells, urging him from class to class. He wakes up on his own schedule. He takes breaks when he wants to. And he likes it. Class begins and ends when he logs in or out of his computer, which delivers lessons from iHigh Virtual Academy — the new online school in San Diego Unified.

But Groarke is a rarity. Fewer students enrolled in the virtual high school, a flagship program for Superintendent Terry Grier, than were originally expected to do so this year. Though thousands of students have taken online classes while still enrolled at ordinary schools, the school only gets state money for the two dozen students who are now solely enrolled in the virtual school. It was an unwelcome financial hit while San Diego Unified was grappling with the most severe budget crisis in recent memory: an estimated $106 million deficit.

But it is also an investment in a new way of learning — a more independent, more individualized approach that is spreading beyond the virtual school through digitized classrooms and laptops for each student. And it is raising new questions and worries about education in the digital age.

“It’s got tons of potential,” said Bob Camacho, a social studies teacher at the school. “We might need to encourage people more to think of us first for kids that need an atypical type of experience. Kids are not cookie cutters.”

While the name sounds fanciful, the virtual high school is a new incarnation of an old program, independent study, which allows teens to cover material at their own pace and earn a diploma. Each student is supervised by a teacher who collects their work, gives out materials, and signs an agreement with the student and their parent or guardian outlining what they are studying and when their work is due.

They do most of their work on the computer, on their own, but can come to campus for extra help. Principal Mary Lange touts it as an innovation meant to reach teens who would otherwise tune out, fail their classes, or even drop out. It also catches students who might otherwise leave San Diego Unified for one of the growing crop of charter schools built around independent study.

“It’s just trying to stay ahead of the curve with how children learn. Kids get disconnected,” said school board member Katherine Nakamura.

Students at ordinary high schools can also enroll in online classes while continuing to take classes at their schools, a route known as dual enrollment, or make up failed classes online, an option called credit recovery. A recent report showed that students at conventional schools had signed up for nearly 3,000 online classes by mid-March.

The new school was already expected to lose about $150,000 in its first year, when it was estimated to enroll 75 students, but with enrollment lagging far behind those predictions, it actually cost an additional $260,000 this year for a total of nearly $420,000 in the red. The shortfall rivals and in some cases exceeds what San Diego Unified estimated it would save by closing each of its small elementary schools. The school did not open its doors until February because its first principal had to depart unexpectedly and teachers’ jobs were not posted on time. That, in turn, meant that the school was scraping for students after the school year had already started.

“It wasn’t for lack of trying,” Lange said. “But it just didn’t work this particular time.”

Teachers union President Camille Zombro said that the plans were rushed, undercutting the program by not properly planning for staffing, costs and sustainability. It is a criticism that the union has frequently lodged against Superintendent Terry Grier, who moves quickly and readily floats ideas, sometimes upsetting workers who feel he is jumping the gun on major changes.

“The bottom line is that iHigh did not get the support that was hyped,” said Michael Goldwater, a building services supervisor at Mount Everest Academy, where the program is housed.

The virtual school was born amid a technological renaissance in San Diego Unified that is still kicking despite its budget woes. And it epitomizes the changed attitude towards education that technology is ushering in: More student choice and the freedom to set your own pace. That shift is happening even at conventional schools such as Dana Middle School, where math class has gone digital, and at a handful of magnets such as Millennial Tech Middle School, where students recently started using individual netbooks. The kids seem to dig it.

“It’s cool. And it’s faster. If we’re doing a research paper we can automatically do it on the computer,” said Brian Doria, a 6th grader at Millennial Tech. “When we didn’t have the laptops, it was two people to a table. We might have to share a book and sometimes you can’t see it. Now you do your own thing.”

More and more classrooms are going to start looking like Millennial Tech under Proposition S, which includes $344 million for technology, including a digital overhaul priced at roughly $30,000 per classroom that includes digital whiteboards and netbooks. It is a major priority for both the school board and for Superintendent Grier.

But the rise of classroom technology has also raised new questions about how to guarantee quality, especially in virtual classes, the most extreme end of the technological spectrum. School board member John de Beck has asked staffers for an audit of the school, complaining that virtual physical education classes seem “ridiculous.” The classes include lessons on nutrition and cardiovascular exercise and require students to do exercise that an adult signs off on. De Beck also questioned how quickly students had racked up credits through the recovery program at high schools, unconvinced by the numbers.

“Do we care about what a diploma means?” de Beck wrote in an e-mail to the superintendent and San Diego Unified staff.  “Or do we just care about how many we issue?”

Mary Groarke, mother of Kevin, said that the online classes are rigorous. Her son was recently tapped for a summer science program at the University of California San Diego, is earning gym credits for roller hockey, swimming laps and mountain biking, and has flourished in his classes.

“It requires a lot of reading and a lot of writing,” she said. “I don’t know if everybody knows just how good the curriculum is.”

Nationwide, the quality of online classes can vary dramatically, just like the quality of ordinary ones. The worries about digital learning are epitomized by the outcry at El Capitan High School in Grossmont Union High School District, where teachers recently discovered that seniors who were failing English were paying to make up the credit with an online class from Brigham Young University that teachers say involves little more than a simple grammar test. Other online classes, however, are praised as inventive ways to reach students who dislike the structure of a classroom, and have met the same standards as ordinary schools. Apex Learning, the Washington-based company that supplies the digital classes for San Diego Unified, is accredited as a digital school. That variability has scholars and advocates cautious.

“There needs to be a deep dive analysis into the data that exist now to ensure that online learning is really improving student outcomes,” said Linda Murray, acting executive director of the Education Trust West. “Time hasn’t passed for that to happen yet.”

Even amidst the technology, the main costs of iHigh are manpower. Four teachers, a counselor, a part time clerk and a principal — albeit one who does not earn as much as a typical principal — work at the new school. The teachers spent this year being trained in online coursework, creating syllabi and contracts for students, visiting schools where students were dually enrolled in the virtual classes, and mentoring individual students who drop in for tutoring and supervised exams, while the classes were actually taught by instructors from Apex Learning. San Diego Unified educators will take over the teaching next year. The school district also signed an $152,200 contract with Apex specifically for the virtual school, and is paying more than $350,000 to the company for other training and programs.

Apex was not the only option. National University provides online classes taught by its instructors for roughly the same price per class, including new classes in Persian and Arabic, and the University of California system provides free Advanced Placement classes in many subjects. Lange said San Diego Unified shelled out the money despite the availability of the free University of California classes because it wanted access to the wider range of classes afforded by Apex — including less advanced classes — and the reports and software that came with the programs. Chief Information and Technology Officer Darryl LaGace noted that it was also convenient because Apex was already being used for credit recovery.

Though enrollment lagged, “the idea was always to really slow ramp into this,” said Matt Spathas, cofounder of a broadband utility company and a parent who has frequently advised San Diego Unified on technology issues. “You’re talking about a transformational idea in schools.”

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