By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Damon Auchard helps Gabriel Ayala work on an online class at Cyber High in Lodi.
The noon bell rings at Cyber High School in Lodi, but all is eerily quiet on campus. There is no laughter or yelling in the courtyard; the tables and chairs stand empty, as if perpetually waiting for students to sit down and eat lunch. Some of the school’s students are working at home, while others haven’t even started their “school day” yet and will hunker down with a computer this evening.
Students may work at their own pace and in different areas, but they still need help from teachers like Damon Auchard, a Lodi Education Association (LEA) member, who sees students at the school on a regular basis — and communicates with them online — to make sure they are up to speed.
Gabriel Ayala, 17, drops by for a one-on-one meeting with Auchard, then sits alone in the computer lab completing a virtual lesson. The serene environment appeals to Ayala, who found regular school distracting.
“It was harder for me to concentrate before,” he relates. “I do miss the social life of high school, but cyber school works well for me.”
His father, Gabe Ayala, says he appreciates being “in the loop” now that his son is taking online classes. Instead of calling teachers to find out Gabriel’s progress, he can log in to the system and make sure his son is doing assignments and passing his tests. And his teacher sends e-mails with updates.
Lodi Unified School District opened Cyber High School last year, along with a Virtual Academy for K-8 students. Both schools use curriculum from private companies and have teachers who monitor student progress and offer individualized instruction as needed.
It was a big step for the rural district, which now has cyber students enrolled from several outlying areas. LEA president Jeff Johnston says the district could have tried to “outsource” online teachers, but instead chose from existing teachers. He appreciates that LEA members in this agricultural community are on the cutting edge of technology.
Cyber High may be quiet, but it’s an exciting place to work, says Auchard. Most students need “credit recovery” to graduate on time, and the school has a 94 percent passing rate in online courses. There are very few behavior problems.
“I love the challenge of motivating students who have not been successful in traditional educational settings,” says Auchard. “Kids need to have educational options, and this serves a tiny percentage of the student body where traditional high school didn’t work.”
Auchard does more hands-on teaching than he expected, because students don’t always understand the lessons. At first, he assumed students would be working independently, but he soon realized that one-on-one instruction was essential.
The same is true in the Fresno Unified School District (FUSD), where educators discovered that students “working at home” sometimes weren’t working at all. After a disastrous fall 2010 session in which a large percentage of students who were assigned work at home failed their courses, FUSD decided that students who were enrolled in virtual courses needed to show up to a real classroom every day to be successful. Students can only take one online course at a time.
“Being supervised and having a credentialed teacher in the classroom has been the key component to success,” says Tom Nixon, a member of the Fresno Teachers Association (FTA) who runs the online learning program for the district. “Kids do get stuck, and this way teachers can provide support where necessary.”
Once high school students began working in real classrooms in a “blended” program that combined virtual and in-person instruction, the rate of course completion “shot through the roof,” says Nixon. Class size is limited to 25 students, who sit side by side in a computer lab taking different courses.
“You don’t have to stand up front and lecture; it’s a whole different vibe,” says Tim Carey, an FTA member who supervises an online learning class. “I’ve only had to discipline one student this year. And I can still be that caring adult. When kids walk in the door, I can see who’s not focused and talk to that student. For the most part, these kids are learning to be responsible and work independently, and they like the fact that they can be successful.”
Riverside Virtual School also offers blended online learning. Students work at home, and there are weekly in-person visits or Skype sessions. The program thrives because of the student-teacher connection, says Kelly McAllister, a member of the Riverside City Teachers Association.
“I just went to a conference where someone said this job can be done without a teacher,” she says. “That’s interesting, because if a kid doesn’t come in and connect with us, it usually means they were not meant for online learning. While learning may happen online, it’s still that teacher-and-student connection that makes it work.”