Students looking for flexibility turn to online classes

Posted: Wednesday, September 10, 2003

CHICAGO Joelle Contorno wanted to do it all in her last year of high school drama club, band, student council, part-time work and still take the classes she needed to graduate.

Juggling a packed schedule, the 17-year-old turned to cyberspace, joining a growing number of students nationwide logging into classes from the comforts of home.

Contorno worked at her own pace, sometimes in pajamas or late at night, when she took her first civics class with the state-run Illinois Virtual High School. Now she's enrolled in an advanced history class that her high school in the Chicago suburbs doesn't offer.

Illinois' Internet school was started in 2001 to give students from rural, small or low-performing schools a chance to take economics, oceanography or other courses not offered at their own schools. Enrollments in the cyberschool tripled this year, from 410 to 1,230.

Increasingly, such online schools are being embraced by students not as a replacement for their local brick-and-mortar academy but as a valuable adjunct.

About 85,000 students were enrolled in virtual schools during the 2001-02 academic year for grades kindergarten through 12, the vast majority of them high schoolers, according to a survey by the Peak Group educational technology consultants. It said enrollments would likely surpass 272,000 this school year.

More than half the states now offer some form of virtual education, said Raymond Rose, vice president of the Concord Consortium, an education research and development group.

Beyond that, 67 virtual charter schools in 17 states served 21,000 students last year, according to the Center for Education Reform, a charter school advocacy group in Washington.

In Florida's Virtual School, which has mushroomed from just a few dozen students seven years ago to an expected 14,000 this year including hundreds from across the nation and several foreign countries who pay tuition the motto is ''any time, any place, any path, any pace.''

''The 'pace' part really caught my attention,'' said Jasmine Buckhannon, a 15-year-old student of English and chemistry in the Florida Internet school who also attends a regular brick-and-mortar school by day. ''In the regular public school you didn't have any time that you could spend. You had to have it then, there, right there.''

Buckhannon was assigned ''Of Mice and Men'' by John Steinbeck and ''Great Expectations'' by Charles Dickens for her English class and was mailed a chemistry kit with goggles, beakers and test tubes so she could do experiments in her kitchen.

The challenge at the Florida Virtual School is to find enough certified teachers to keep up with demand. The 60 teachers hired this summer give the school a faculty of 150 who work from home.

In Illinois, students use the Internet school to make up classes, take advanced courses such as calculus that are not available at their school, or to juggle school with sports and work.

Contorno took her online civics course because she didn't want to drive to a nearby town this summer.

Jon Kilgore taught the class while 90 miles away in Chenoa, Ill. using a laptop computer and wireless Internet connection from his front porch or kitchen.

On a typical day, he pored over e-mail from students, helped one with a computer question and downloaded assignments that students e-mailed him.

Most communication is electronic, but Kilgore also called Contorno and her father several times during the summer class. She e-mailed him every other week.

Contorno said she's still trying to adjust to writing out her responses rather than saying what she thinks. And it's hard not knowing who her classmates are, since they live throughout the state.

''It's good and bad. I miss that I can't talk to my friends, but I'm still learning the same material,'' she said.

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