Online Courses Aim to Prevent Dropouts

Jefferson Lara, 18, works on a physics assignment. Online courses are part of the Arlington Mill High School continuation program, designed to help at-risk students get a diploma.
Jefferson Lara, 18, works on a physics assignment. Online courses are part of the Arlington Mill High School continuation program, designed to help at-risk students get a diploma. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 11, 2008

Jefferson Lara got into trouble soon after he started high school. His involvement in a gang fight while he was in ninth grade in Fairfax County knocked his plans askew. He was sent to a disciplinary program, spent a year with relatives in Peru and returned to Northern Virginia to stock grocery store shelves. His luck changed when he took auto repair classes and got a job offer from a Nissan dealer, but that wasn't going to happen unless he had a high school diploma.

So this year, the 18-year-old is enrolled in the Arlington Mill High School continuation program, an Arlington County initiative that offers not only classroom courses to help students get their degrees but also an online component that is becoming an increasingly important tool for educators to prevent students from dropping out.

By spending his school lunch periods in the Arlington Mill computer lab, Lara has nearly completed an online physics course; he'll take senior English online this spring. At the same time, he is also taking a handful of regular classes. The online courses will shorten the time it takes him to graduate.

Never comfortable with the high school routine, Lara said what he likes best about the online course, designed by Arlington-based Educational Options, is that there is no homework. "You can go at your own pace," he said. "Sometimes teachers go too slow or too fast, but here you can move any way you want."

Nationally, about 30 percent of students starting ninth grade drop out before graduation four years later. In low-income neighborhoods, the dropout rate is closer to 50 percent, which experts blame in part on large, impersonal, rule-bound schools that don't adjust well to individual needs and peculiarities. Online courses offer a more flexible approach. Many Washington area schools are adding them to their anti-dropout campaigns.

"This is very important because in many cases, students are only lacking a few credits for graduation, but they simply won't stay in school to get them," said Jay Smink, executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University.

Barbara Thompson, administrator of Arlington Mill, said about 120 of the 320 students in her program are taking EdOptions courses. They might take only one course at a time, but a determined student can knock one off very quickly. "We had one student who came in and worked on a science course for 10 hours a day and got it done in a few weeks," Thompson said.

Thompson's school occupies part of a former Safeway store on Columbia Pike in a neighborhood full of immigrants. Most of her students are 18 to 25. Eighty-five percent are Hispanic. Many of them find even the school's flexible approach difficult. Some students who show up in September will be gone by Thanksgiving, and more will leave after Christmas, in part because many of them can't read well enough to understand the courses.

Sharon Ruggieri, a science teacher who also oversees students such as Lara who take online courses, said reading comprehension has to be at about an eighth-grade level for the student to succeed. "I don't care what the setting is, online or regular classroom. If they cannot process the information that is coming in, they are not getting it," she said.

EdOptions is run by a former Air Force fighter pilot, Tom Sawner, whose company received a 2006 Small Business of the Year award from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Sawner speaks passionately of his mission to help schools, although his and other for-profit online education companies also appear to be doing well financially.

Thompson said what she likes best about the EdOptions program is the independence it gives students. They read each chapter online, with meanings of difficult words available at a mouse click. Chapters end with a few dozen multiple-choice questions. Students cannot go on to the next chapter without correctly answering most of them. (A teacher sets the threshold, often 80 percent.) Short-answer and essay questions are checked by a teacher. A student who falls short must look over the chapter again and prepare to answer a different set of questions.

To Lara's teachers, that fills the role of homework, but it is so woven into the learning process that Lara doesn't see it as such.

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