Student Achievement

Districts Add Web Courses for Summer

By Rhea R. Borja — June 14, 2005 4 min read
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Students in Tennessee’s Hamilton County schools won’t trudge to classrooms in the syrupy July heat for summer school. Instead, they can boot up a computer at home or almost any place else with an Internet connection and take classes online.

The summer Web-based classes will supplant the 40,000-student district’s traditional summer school courses, according to a district official.

More and more school districts, as well as for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations, are offering Internet-based summer classes in core subjects, such as algebra and reading, and electives such as creative writing.

The logistical ease of “anytime, anywhere” learning, the courses’ relatively low cost to parents, and the increased need for students to meet state academic standards are some of the reasons online summer enrollment is continuing to rise, school and company officials say.

“Students don’t have to go to school, they don’t have to put on [school] clothes, and the teacher can sit with a cup of coffee or with a baby on her knee while [she teaches],” said Charlene Becker, the director of instruction for secondary schools for the Hamilton County district, which includes the city of Chattanooga.

The district charges students $185 for each summer course. Students eligible for free school lunches can take the online courses for free, and students who receive reduced-price lunches get 50 percent off.

Enrollment ‘Explosion’

The Orlando-based Florida Virtual School is on track to triple its student enrollment, from about 4,000 last summer to 12,000 this summer, said Julie E. Young, the president of the state-sponsored public online school. Another 12,000 students remain on a waiting list.

“It’s an explosion,” Ms. Young said. “Last year, we really started to open up the summer to a broader audience. We realized the demand for it.”

Meanwhile, summer enrollment may rise 50 percent for the Virtual High School, a nonprofit organization in Maynard, Mass., that teaches about 6,000 students in 29 states and 23 countries. Students find they must take or retake a course to stay on track for graduation, or they want to free up a period in the coming school year for an elective course, said Sandra P. Rowe, the global-services director for the school.

The summer students, Ms. Rowe said, are an even mix of those who take the courses for credit recovery and those who take them primarily for enrichment.

In addition, more schools themselves, not just parents, are paying for students to take the online classes, Ms. Rowe said. That way, she pointed out, school officials don’t have to deal with the logistical headaches of providing summer school. And families who travel in the summer find the online courses better suited to their lifestyles.

“We’re getting a lot more [student] registrations, and we’re getting them earlier,” she said. “The idea of taking a class online is not a flimsy solution anymore. It’s a solid option.”

Susan D. Patrick, the director of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education, said the increasing popularity of online summer school reflects the overall growth of distance education.

“If you think about 10 years ago, there were almost no classes done online,” she said. “But in 2002-03, 36 percent of school districts had students in distance education classes, and 72 percent of those districts continue to expand [these] options.”

Will Williams, a student at Georgia’s Harris County High School, broke his leg trying to skateboard down a hill over spring break last year. Immobilized for months, the then-sophomore took a U.S. history course through the Virtual High School last summer so he would stay on track to graduate with his class in 2006.

The difficulty level of the online course was “about the same” as that of a traditional class, said Mr. Williams. But the commitment level is higher.

“You have to be driven because it’s not a face-to-face thing,” he said.

His mother, Robin Williams-McCormack, said she expected a little more guidance than her son received, but added that the $400 price tag was “well worth it.”

The school year schedule for 17-year-old Dianne de la Veaux is jam-packed. At the private Wilmington Friends School in Wilmington, Del., she’s on the cross-country team, acts in school musicals, and is on the yearbook and newspaper staffs. She also works part time.

So she decided to take an online U.S. history course this summer from the Virtual High School, said her mother, Paulette de la Veaux.

“This is her one chance to fit this class into her schedule,” Ms. de la Veaux said of her daughter.

Students who need to polish their reading and math skills are also a big contingent of online summer school attendees. Baltimore-based Catapult Learning Inc., which serves more than 150 school districts, offers real-time online tutoring to students who need remedial help. The company has grown from working with a handful of districts in the summer to “a good number” of them, according to company officials, who would not disclose the actual number of districts it serves in the summer.

‘A Private Way’

Districts can use leftover Title I supplemental-educational-services money for online summer school remedial classes, said Jeffrey H. Cohen, the president of Catapult Learning, a subsidiary of for-profit Educate Inc., also based in Baltimore.

“The summer is a great way to attack particular challenges,” said Mr. Cohen. “For students who are far behind and don’t want to get tutored in a group because they find it stigmatizing, this is a private way.”

Participation in Achieve 3000 Inc.’s “Summer Success” program has mushroomed from two schools in 2003 to some 200 school districts this summer. The Lakewood, N.J.-based company offers individualized Web-based instruction in reading comprehension, writing, and vocabulary.

“Summer is the time to see tremendous [academic] growth,” said Saki Dodelson, the chief executive officer of Achieve 3000.

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