Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

At-Risk Students Face E-Learning Challenges

By Katie Ash — August 22, 2011 7 min read
Anaihs Espinoza, 18, is entering her senior year at Brady Exploration School, in Lakewood, Colo., which serves academically at-risk students from the Jefferson County School District using a hybrid of virtual and face-to-face learning environments. Ms. Espinoza, who has many friends who dropped out, wants to graduate and enter the medical field.
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Stepping into a virtual learning environment can help struggling students interact with curricula in a new way, begin learning with a clean slate, and provide more flexibility to accommodate work or family obligations, say educators and experts working online with students who are at risk of academic failure.

But none of those factors will make such students successful unless they have the support and resources they need to engage with the material and the motivation to work hard for their credits, experts stress.

“The way online learning is set up, it puts the control of the learning on the shoulders of students,” said Jeanne Repetto, an associate professor in the department of special education at the University of Florida, in Gainesville. “They feel the confidence and control, which is why online learning can be good for this population.”

When students do not take responsibility for their own learning, however, and their virtual teachers cannot maintain steady communication with a support team, such as a school contact or parent, the students are much less likely to be successful, said Michelle Lourcey, the director of credit recovery for the North Carolina Virtual Public School, or NCVPS.

“Our teachers are constantly working with [students] and parents to keep them [on track,] but if there’s no motivation and no accountability at the school level,” the students may not make it through, she said.

Typically, NCVPS assigns a distance-learning adviser, or someone at the student’s home school, to each student to prevent that problem.

“We have found that if we can get the student feeling success in the first unit, they’ll stay with us,” said Ms. Lourcey.

At-risk students in virtual education are generally grouped into credit-recovery programs that help students who have fallen behind obtain the credits they need to graduate.

NCVPS had 2,200 credit-recovery enrollments out of a total of 17,000 enrollments in the spring of 2011. During the summer, out of 10,000 total enrollments, 3,000 were for credit recovery.

Building strong teacher-student relationships is key to helping struggling students be successful, said Ms. Lourcey.

“With at risk students, if they feel valued, that is very powerful,” said Darlene Schaefer, an English teacher at NCVPS. “If they know that there’s somebody out there that has their back and believes in them, they believe in success and accomplishment.”

Starting Over

For some of those students, being in an online classroom may be the first time they are able to form positive relationships with teachers, said Michelle Barnhill, another teacher at NCVPS.

And once those students trust the teacher, they begin to feel more confident in their learning, said Emily Parrish, a science and math teacher with NCVPS.

“If a student hasn’t had success before and begins to feel success, they’re going to want more of it,” she said.

Having engaging, interactive content is another key to helping struggling students get back on track, said Ms. Lourcey, the credit-recovery director.

“If we’re teaching photosynthesis, we want [students] to be able to read about it, but also hear and visually see what it is and then be able to practice the concept immediately,” she said. “If [the students] master the content, they get to move on to the next concept. If they haven’t mastered it, they go through remediation, where the content is presented in a different way.”

Proportion of the class of 2008 that dropped out

1.2 million
Number of dropouts based on that percentage

$9.6 billion
Boost to the national economy from cutting the dropout rate in half

$7.6 billion
Total of how much more dropouts would have earned each year had they graduated

Sources: EPE Research Center; Alliance for Excellent Education

Credit-recovery classes are kept small, too, said Ms. Lourcey, at a ratio of one teacher for every 20 students, to ensure teachers have the time and capacity to individualize the curriculum for each student.

Richard Landolt is the principal of CrossRoads, an alternative school that serves about 450 students in grades 6-12 in the 39,000-student Cherokee County school district in Canton, Ga.

CrossRoads began as a school for students who had been expelled from other schools in the district, and while it continues to serve that population, students can attend voluntarily as well. As a result, the school serves students who are on track for graduation, as well as those who may need to undergo credit recovery to graduate on time.

Students at the school choose whether they would like to work through online courses provided by the online-course provider Apex or a traditional textbook-based curriculum.

The students at the school then work individually at their own pace, with facilitation from a teacher.

How a student performs in the first semester is critical to keeping the student engaged, Mr. Landolt said.

“If we can get [students] to [recover] one or two credits within the first 15 weeks, they begin to see they’re making progress and getting good grades,” he said. “It still comes down to motivation.”

‘Focus on Education’

Nick Wilson, the communications director of the Columbus, Ohio-based Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, or ECOT, a public online school serving 10,000 K-12 students in Ohio, said the continuous stream of data possible from online learning can also play a significant role in helping struggling students find success.

“We have a whole team of teachers that are responsible for assessing continuously,” Mr. Wilson said. In addition, the learning-management system used by ECOT tracks all of the students’ interactions in the courses, “so we can see how that’s correlated to their success,” he said. “You can’t do that in a traditional environment.”

Brady Exploration School, in the 84,600-student Jefferson County school system, just west of Denver, serves at-risk students from the district in a hybrid of virtual and face-to-face learning environments.

According to the school’s principal, Troy Braley, 65 percent of the student population qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch, 16 percent are homeless, and 75 percent do not read at grade level.

What started as a hands-on, exploratory instructional model has since turned into a hybrid learning environment in order to cut down on the high number of disciplinary problems the school experienced when it opened in 2005, Mr. Braley explained.

“I had the worst discipline in the state,” he said. "[The switch to online classes] was not easy for the staff or the community,but the discipline issues stopped, and we could finally focus on education.”

Four years later, the school boasts a host of services for struggling students and their families, such as a clinic for free immunizations and checkups for parents and their children, access to bus passes and bicycles, drug-treatment services, and English classes for students and their families.

The school is open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. to accommodate the schedules of the students, many of whom have part-time jobs or families to take care of, and classes switch instructional methods every 20 minutes to keep students engaged in the material.

“The traditional school just can’t meet their needs,” Mr. Braley said. Each student is assigned a graduation coach, who looks out for students who otherwise might fall through the cracks.

“If a kid’s not doing their homework, [the graduation coach] will call up the parents and say, ‘I’ll come over, and we’ll do it together,’ ” Mr. Braley said.

Re-engaging Students

To help combat the dropout problem in the 2,750-student Westwood Community School District outside Detroit, administrators opened Westwood Cyber High School, a solely virtual school that serves students in that district. In two years, the school has expanded from 180 students to over 700.

“All of our students are at risk, but a number of them have actually dropped out or are on the verge of dropping out,” said Hilliard Hampton, the managing director for the school. Westwood Cyber High is based on a model from the United Kingdom called “not school,” said Mr. Hilliard, which has a focus on virtual learning and project-based classes. Students in the school are referred to as “researchers,” while teachers are called “mentors.”

Students also receive home computers, Internet access, printers, and cameras to complete their virtual courses—equipment they get to keep if they graduate successfully.

“One of the key factors ... for us to understand is that when[students] come into the program, education is not high on their priority list,” Mr. Hilliard said. “The first may be to help provide food for their family, or they may have a child themselves.

“Our first challenge is to re-engage the student and raise the level of priority of education,” he said.

To do so, the curriculum students undertake is largely based around their own interests.

“We take things that interest them, such as skateboarding or even playing basketball, and apply it to projects,” Mr. Hilliard said. “For example, the amount of arc that’s required for a student to land a skateboard jump.”

By making what students are doing relevant to their own lives, he hopes the students will re-engage with the curriculum and their education.

“These are students who have for some reason or another not been successful in current or prior educational settings,” said Sue C. Carnell, the superintendent of the school district. “You have to reinvent their confidence that they can do it.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2011 edition of Education Week as At-Risk Students’ Virtual Challenges


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