BY JORGE BARRIENTOS, Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Regular public high school just wasn't working for Maddison Kenefsky.
She got above average grades her first two years at Highland High, but felt she needed something more challenging. And she was unable to fully focus on classes, she said, because other students teased her for her Christian beliefs.
KERN VIRTUAL STUDENTS
Roughly 2,600 students in grades 9-12 took independent study, according the 2008-09 data, the most recent available from the state. That's about 100 more than the year before, and about 1,000 more than 10 years ago. How many of those students took online-only courses is not tracked.
California Virtual Academy at Maricopa Elementary School District, Kern's sole chartered, online-only academy, had about 600 students the most recent school year, but that also includes students from outside counties. The first year it offered online education (2005-06) it had 23 students.
About 60 independent study, charter schools are available to Kern County students. Many of them offer online components.
Then Kenefsky saw a television commercial for a free, online-only public high school open to Kern County students.
She signed up.
The school -- Insight School of California, Los Angeles -- sent her a free laptop and printer to complete work, and soon started shipping scores of textbooks and course equipment, including balls and exercise gear for physical education.
Kenefsky completed her last two years of high school with it.
"If it wasn't for online schooling, I probably wouldn't have made it," she said. "I needed to take classes at my own pace."
It's not clear how many local students have turned to online public high schools but web programs have blossomed in California and will continue to, school officials say.
Local high schools have made an effort to provide online courses to students who either need them to graduate or prefer them over sitting in a classroom. And chartered, online public high schools outside of town -- like Insight -- are more heavily recruiting students in Kern.
Little research has been done comparing regular public high schools to their online counterparts here, but school leaders say it's important for students and their parents to do their homework before switching.
"Online learning is an option -- it doesn't work for all kids," said Paul Helman, Kern High School District director of information systems and technology. "The virtual classroom is not going to disappear. There is certainly a place for it. But research shows student success lies with relationships, with student-teacher interaction."
Carol Abbott, an independent study program consultant for the California Department of Education, said her office has been inundated with calls for information on accredited online-only programs. So it's creating a database of the programs, including which area they serve and whom to contact to enroll.
"The online field is just exploding," Abbott said. "We're trying to get a handle on how many there are."
About 60 independent study charter schools are open to Kern County students, and many offer online components. Online public high schools, which are free, partner with local districts and by state rules can recruit students from surrounding counties.
Although only one online-only public school is chartered through a Kern County district -- California Virtual Academy at Maricopa Unified School District -- scores of others in outlying areas are heavily recruiting students here.
The reasons teens choose the online route vary. Some are aspiring entertainers or athletes. Others are homebound for personal or medical reasons such as being learning-challenged, the victims of bullying or averse to a structured classroom setting, school officials said.
Sheila Shiebler, executive director of Insight, said students choose online high schools because of flexibility in taking classes at their own pace. Last year, the school had 18 students from Kern.
But online doesn't mean easy, she said. It's "as rigorous, if not more, than the average public school curriculum."
Teachers there are credentialed, "highly qualified" and regularly communicate in live chats with students. Students can take University of California and California State University required courses, complete all standardized tests and access tutoring. On the social side, the school provides club participation, organizes field trips and even throws proms.
"Overall, the students come out ready for the workforce," Shiebler said. "It's leaps and bounds ahead, but it takes self-discipline to be successful."
The brand new Mt. Whitney Virtual Academy based in Bishop is seeking Kern students. Its teachers will focus on providing direct support to students, said Principal Randy Cook. Students primarily take two classes at a time in six-week blocks.
"Depending on the kid, of course, it's a great environment," he said.
Terry Wolfe, Maricopa Union superintendent, said the online-only academy does good work. In fact, the district supplements its curriculum with the academy's.
LOCAL AND ONLINE
The Kern High School District offers online courses mostly for "credit recovery" -- as a faster way to complete courses to graduate. About 500 KHSD students, supervised by KHSD teachers, take at least one course online though its Apex program.
"They've usually been through a regular program and haven't had success," said John Meyers, KHSD director of career technical education. "Online is just another resource. We're not replacing teachers. We're trying to get kids more access."
Damian Hernandez took several online courses to graduate from South High this summer. When he needed help, he asked the teacher in a computer lab he sat in.
"Online classes are great for people that are behind. It's pretty much just reading out of a book. And if you have questions, you ask a teacher," Hernandez said. "But I don't see them as a substitute for actual classes."
Kelly Bergen, technology programs specialist with KCSOS, said online courses are something all local schools are looking at implementing more.
"We need to do what we can for students when the resources are limited," Bergen said.
Online classes not only give students more options but save schools money, said John Lindsay, assistant superintendent at Kern County Superintendent of Schools.
FUTURE OF HIGH SCHOOL?
More online-only public high schools are popping up for a few reasons, said Patricia Burch, an expert on virtual schooling and a professor at the University of Southern California. The federal government encourages them and the technology boom has helped make them more available.
Recruits must pay attention to the quality of teachers and curriculum offered in the schools, she said. Some offer interactive learning with a wide array of literature, while others offer only "drill and kill worksheets," she said.
Burch recommends searching through schools' websites -- making sure courses offered meet college requirements and that supplemental tools are available like tutoring and test preparation -- and looking "beyond the advertisements." Unfortunately, she said, there is little reliable research available comparing virtual and campus schools.
"You have to get in there and look," Burch said.
Kenefsky's online experience worked out. It was tougher than she expected, she said: working six-hour days reading about mythology and working on trigonometry. Online students, she said, have to push themselves.
"You have to take yourself to school," said Kenefsky, who plans to enroll in the University of Phoenix, an online university, in the hopes of becoming a teacher. She received a high school diploma at a small graduation ceremony in Huntington Beach.
Maddison's mother, Vicki Kenefsky, didn't have much hope for Insight at first. But the school regularly contacted her about Maddison's progress and teachers were available to help her, she said. And it was free.
She calls the experience "amazing."
"This is the future of high school," she said. "We believe in it."