To boost the flagging graduation rate at T.C. Williams High School, Alexandria leaders decided to open a satellite campus with a more flexible online curriculum tailored to students with complex lives.
Hunting for a location that is open long hours, easily accessible by public transportation and close to job opportunities, they found their destination at Landmark Mall. Since September, Alexandria students have been pursuing high school diplomas down the hall from a nail spa and a dollar store.
And they are graduating.
Out of 51 seniors enrolled at the campus this year, two moved away from Alexandria, and 49 are scheduled to graduate this summer, many of them Saturday with the Class of 2013.
Like a growing number of school districts across the country, Alexandria has been looking for alternatives to brick-and-mortar schools to meet widely different student needs. Virtual schools offer flexibility that can be especially helpful for students with the greatest risk of dropping out: teens who have kids or full-time jobs or who have fallen behind in credits.
Alexandria officials are optimistic about the first year’s results at the mall. Superintendent Morton Sherman said success comes from offering flexibility and lots of support. “Not every student learns the same way, in the same seat, in the same classroom,” he said.
At this school, the principal's office is a bench in the mall, the cafeteria is a pass good for a No. 1 or a No. 5 at Chick-fil-A and the classroom is primarily a laptop.
Alexandria is using a “hybrid” or “blended” approach to virtual learning. The satellite campus offers a full online curriculum through a contract with Herndon-based K12, the country’s largest operator of full-time and blended virtual schools. Students work with online teachers but also have face-to-face time with certified teachers, called mentors. If they get stuck, the mentors sit down with them or conduct small-group lessons in an adjacent conference room.
The satellite campus is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. Students bring their school-issued laptops and work in cubicles.
They are expected to be on campus at least 20 hours a week, but they can log on and keep working anytime. A shuttle takes students to the main campus if they want to take career and technical classes or sign up for extracurriculars. But, the campus will probably have to move at the end of next school year because the mall is slated for redevelopment.
The satellite campus opened in the fall with a goal of 100 students. By year’s end, it had enrolled 116 students, including at least eight who had previously dropped out of school.
One of them was Gerge Berrios, 18. He said he withdrew from Woodbridge Senior High School this winter because he did not have enough credits to graduate and didn’t know how to catch up. He moved in with his mother in Alexandria and enrolled in T.C. Satellite Campus about a month later. Counselors told him he could make up the credits he needed this spring, if he worked hard.
Berrios put in “mad hours,” he said, working 10 hours a day and six days a week. By May, he managed to take or retake classes in environmental science, biology, geometry, English and civics.
“I got to tell my mom, ‘I’m going to walk in June,’ ” Berrios said.
T.C. Williams has been working aggressively to improve its graduation rate since 2010, when it was labeled one of the nation’s persistently lowest-achieving schools and given federal funding to improve.
The satellite campus is part of a broader strategy to help its most vulnerable students.
The school invested in a larger team of school counselors to work with students and their families, and officials created an international academy to better meet the needs of immigrant students still learning English.
Alexandria officials stopped offering GED prep classes at their main high school, adhering to research that shows students who earn a high school diploma are far more likely to pursue higher education. And they decided to let older students stay at T.C. Williams or re-enroll as long as they earn a diploma by age 22.
They are starting to see results.
In 2009, 78 percent of students graduated from T.C. Williams in four years, compared with 83 percent across Virginia. By 2012, the high school’s on-time graduation rate increased to 82 percent. The rate for Hispanic students increased from 65 percent to 70 percent, and for African Americans it grew from 79 percent to 82 percent.
The satellite campus also is attracting more traditionally successful students who want to speed up their path to graduation day.
“No kid in their right mind would say they enjoy being in school when they could do something else,” said Nathan Patterson, 17, who transferred to the campus as a junior and plans to graduate this summer.
Another student finished her senior year in one semester so she could take part in an outdoor adventure and leadership program in Fiji, New Zealand and Australia this spring.
Deputy Superintendent Madye Henson said about 50 school districts in the United States and Canada have contacted her to learn about the satellite school.
But she cautioned that it takes a sizable dedication of resources. “It’s not about just putting up a bunch of cubicles and allowing students to log on,” Henson said. “A lot can go wrong.”
Without additional support, many students in full-time virtual schools struggle or drop out.
The satellite campus has six teachers who work full time. Two social workers, two counselors, a psychologist and a nurse divide their time between the satellite campus and another program, Principal James Wilson said.
“If you left school, there was probably a reason,” said Crystal Patterson, a lead teacher at the satellite school. “And that reason probably hasn’t gone away. If you had attendance issues in a regular school, you are probably going to have attendance issues still.”
But if a student stops coming, school officials are aggressive. “We are tweeting them, texting them, calling them,” Patterson said. “Dropping out is just not an option.”