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Universities Run E-Schools for K-12 Gifted Students

By Katie Ash — March 14, 2011 6 min read

Several research universities around the country are running online college-prep schools that tailor teaching and learning to the needs of high achievers, essentially establishing an on-site research base to evaluate the effectiveness of personalized online learning for gifted students.

Those students are often underserved in regular public schools, which may not have the time or money to provide courses that challenge them or allow them to pursue particular academic interests, says Patricia Wallace, the senior director of information technology for the Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth, which runs an online prep school called CTYOnline for pre-K-12 students.

“Schools are really under pressure to differentiate the curriculum for all students, and their main pressure is at the remedial end,” Wallace says. “The funding for these programs for students who are in the top level is just really pennies compared to what students on other levels get.”

Enrolling high-achieving students in online courses not only helps the students achieve their full potential, but also reduces stress on the teacher, Wallace argues.

“First of all, [students] aren’t becoming a behavior problem in a course in which they’re bored,” she says, “and they’re not putting more demands on the teacher who is already stretched so thin to differentiate the curriculum.”

In the latest development, the e-learning company K12 Inc., based in Herndon, Va., teamed up this year with George Washington University, in Washington, to launch a fully online private prep school for high schoolers. Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., and Stanford University, in California, also have virtual education programs for gifted students.

Researching Impact

The product of the partnership between GWU and K12 Inc. is George Washington University Online High School, or GWOHS, which started classes in January with 18 students. Annual tuition for the program is $9,995 per student, or $4,995 per semester.

The school, which currently serves 9th and 10th graders and plans to expand to grades 11 and 12 over the next year, is going to allow the university and K12 Inc. to conduct research on curriculum development and instruction in online-learning environments, says Bruce Davis, the executive vice president of worldwide business development for K12 Inc., which operates online public schools in 25 states.

Working with the university’s school of education should open the door to better perspectives on online instructional methods, he says. The partnership will also give GWU the opportunity to incorporate online-teaching and -learning skills into its teacher education programs, he adds, something many colleges of education don’t offer.

“There has been very slow development of teacher preservice and training programs around online and blended learning,” says John Watson, the founder of the Evergreen Education Group, in Evergreen, Colo., which does research on K-12 online learning.

Conducting research on methods of online instruction and incorporating that information into GWU’s school of education would make the partnership “really valuable in ways that go beyond just the students that attend the [virtual] school,” he says.

Students in the program will take honors, Advanced Placement, and elective courses created by K12 Inc. Admission to the program is highly selective.

“We are taking a holistic view,” says Barbara Brueggemann, the head of the school. “The key is finding a good fit so that students are successful and happy and fulfilled.”

Creating Community

At Northwestern University, the Gifted LearningLinks, or GLL, program offers courses for students in kindergarten through grade 12. The program began in 1983 with correspondence courses and moved online in 2003. It began offering courses for grades K-2 this school year.

The courses geared toward K-2 pupils are family courses, says Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, the director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University, which oversees GLL.

All the courses used by GLL are created by the instructors hired to teach them, she says.

“That’s why [teachers] like to teach for us. We’re very much supportive of what they want to do,” she says. Instructors are hired from around the country and tend to be either practicing or retired brick-and-mortar teachers, Olszewski-Kubilius says. Teachers at the school are provided with training to teach online, although more and more teachers are coming to the school with previous online teaching experience.

Gifted LearningLinks serves students who want a more challenging curriculum or students whose brick-and-mortar schools don’t offer the courses they’d like to take. The enrollment also includes some home-schooled children, Olszewski-Kubilius says.

“[Parents] like the chance for the kids to connect and talk with other kids across the country,” she says.

Bringing gifted students together with other academically high-achieving children is one of the biggest draws, says Jovana Knezevic, the director of information and communications for the Education Program for Gifted Youth at Stanford University, which operates the EPGY Online High School.

“What many of these students were seeking was other students that were like them,” she says. “It’s that community of students and meeting of like-minded peers that really is at the heart of the experience.”

Unlike many other online schools, EPGY Online High is primarily synchronous, which means students and teachers meet in real time, through the Web.

Knezevic says, “We’re using technology to bridge all of the obstacles to bringing these students together and meeting their unique educational needs.”

Classes are conducted by using webconferencing tools, interactive whiteboards, text chats, and audio, Knezevic says. “We tend to think of ourselves as a boarding school, but online,” she says.

The Stanford-based online high school started in 2006 and enrolls students in grades 7-12. The instructors are hired from around the world, and many have taught at the college level, Knezevic says. Many teachers come to the school with virtual-teaching experience, but everyone receives online-teaching training before starting.

About a third of the students at the school are full-time; the remaining two-thirds are part-time or enroll in a single course.

“Our curriculum is really geared towards fostering critical thinkers,” Knezevic says, “but also fostering the critical-reasoning and -analysis skills that are so essential to success.”

Matching Ability

At Johns Hopkins, CTYOnline is a nonprofit organization that teams up with individual students as well as public and private schools, to provide courses for gifted students, says Wallace. “We add a lot of individualized attention to each student,” she says.

The courses are developed mostly in-house, with some licensed material from curriculum providers, she says, and the courses are taught by Johns Hopkins professors, graduate students, published authors, and others.

The program works with schools to identify students in elementary, middle, and high school who need more-advanced courses, Wallace says. Some students complete the courses after school, while others go to a computer lab during an open block of time at school to work on their courses.

“This way,” says Wallace, “you can provide these courses that match their ability level in whatever subject they happen to be really strong.”

Among its offerings, CTYOnline offers specialized courses, such as computer programming for elementary schoolers, as well as cryptography and computer security for older students, she says.

Often, when a school provides the courses for the students, it is the school itself that foots the bill, says Wallace.

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