Are online schools the answer for at-risk students?

Last fall, Anchorage Public Schools enrolled 7,000 at-risk students in an online math tutoring program to provide personalized instruction during the regular school day. Nearly 4,500 miles away, almost 100 students graduated in three years from the online Performance Learning Center administered by Hampton City Schools in Virginia. And in Michigan, Jackson's Northwest Alternative High School offers a duo of online programs catering to students who struggle in the traditional classroom.


Online programs and virtual schools are one of the recent strategies being deployed to reach at-risk students in danger of dropping out. While some school districts are incorporating online components in traditional classrooms, others are completely abandoning old methods of teaching in favor of online learning. Although online schools hold promise, some education experts caution they shouldn't be seen as a silver bullet for all struggling students.

What online learning offers at-risk students

"Online schools offer teachers without attitudes," says Doug Green, a retired teacher and administrator. "They don't know your reputation and probably don't care."

Green, who currently provides education consulting services through his website DrDonGreen.com, says online schools offer at-risk students a fresh start as well as the chance to work on their own terms. Green notes that if a student works best at 3am, many online schools allow the flexibility to learn at any time of day.

K12.com is one of the largest providers of online education in the country. In addition to offering private education options and individual courses, the company partners with public schools in many states to provide tuition-free online learning. Jeff Kwitowski, Vice President of Public Affairs for K12, says online schools represent a second chance for at-risk students.

"Parents of students that have struggled or failed in traditional schools often choose online schools to help their children get back on track," says Kwitowski. "For many students, their learning needs are better met outside a traditional classroom."

According to Kwitowski, one of the key benefits of online learning is that coursework can be customized to meet the needs of struggling students. In addition, a virtual school eliminates distractions such as negative social issues and bullying.

Parental involvement a must

The flexible learning environment of online schools can come at a price, however. Brock Dubbels, a graduate instructor at the University of Minnesota and founder of Video Games as Learning Tools -- known as vgAlt -- says parents need to have a realistic view of what online education can do for their child.

"People think technology motivates the kids," says Dubbels, "but tools don't solve the problem."

For students who are not motivated to succeed in a traditional classroom, chances are they will be equally unmotivated if the same material is simply presented to them on the computer. Instead of a worksheet model, Dubbels suggests that dynamic programs including multimedia components such as video and games will be most likely to engage at-risk students.

In addition, parents must be prepared to keep close tabs on their children as they are learning. Dubbels comments that because a student appears busy on the computer, it doesn't mean they are actually working. The online world presents a host of distractions from chat rooms to social media sites to games. It is up to parents to keep students on task. Kwitowski agrees.

"We know online education is not the right model or choice for every student," he explains. "In K12's communications to interested parents, it is consistently emphasized that an online education requires full commitment from the student and parent/learning coach."

The best of both worlds

For at-risk students who might need extra instruction beyond parental help, hybrid programs may be one solution. It is the approach used by Northwest Alternative High School's Second Shift program. Held after school in a computer lab, students complete their coursework online while a teacher circulates through the room to provide assistance as needed.

When it comes to deciding the right course of action, Dubbels recommends a "try it before you buy it" approach. The quality of online schools can vary significantly and enrolling your student in a preliminary course can be a good way to gauge the effectiveness of the program as well as whether the approach may work for your student. Another option, says Kwitowski, is an interactive tutorial offered on the K12 website that helps parents determine if online learning is good fit for their family.

In today's job market, having the right education can be crucial. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the 2010 unemployment rate for those without a high school diploma was 14.9 percent, compared to 10.3 percent for those with a diploma. Although online schools may not be a perfect solution for all families, they can provide a second chance and new hope for at-risk students.

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