The last time we spoke this past summer Principal Christopher Ray was just weeks away from opening his first high school. The former elementary principal still needed pupils, teachers and curriculum. But launch it did this fall as Gwinnett Online Campus opened a blended learning high school that combines virtual courses with personal and group time with instructors.
“The first year has been about getting people to understand what we’re all about, what are the requirements,” Ray said this week. “I thought my previous job was hard. This job is mentally exhausting. You’re constantly thinking, ‘What can we do?’ The technology constantly evolves.” Ray has nearly two decades in the Gwinnett County Public Schools system, the last seven as an elementary principal.
Gwinnett is the state’s largest public system with 160,000 students. About one fourth are high school students. The county began to offer supplemental online learning more than a decade ago and last year 5,000 students enrolled in at least one course. This fall Gwinnett took its first steps into an online blended learning high school that is also an incubator for lower grades.
“One of the major pieces is orientation, connecting students with the technology, walking them through how the courses are taught, also working with them on study skills, study strategies,” Ray said. “What is your plan for this course? What is your study time? How will you schedule that? What support do you have at home? This has been a big learning experience for us.”
Gwinnett Online Campus is actually three programs. The blended learning high school is a charter authorized by the local county board of education. Gwinnett Online continues to operate its robust supplemental course network for students in traditional classroom and has served more than 30,000 total students since its inception. The third component is credit recovery — known as Guided Study — for high school students who need to retake a course they failed in traditional classrooms.
Gwinnett Online Campus – the high school – opened in August with 160 students. About one-fourth have withdrawn. Some returned to traditional classrooms. Some were dropouts who tried online blended learning but found the experience too rigorous. “They had difficulty adjusting,” Ray said. One family with three online learners moved to Connecticut. “We’ve had other students who had babies,” Ray said. “That has impacted their schedules.”
The difference between traditional and virtual classrooms is not just a student experience. One faculty member told Ray, “I didn’t sign up for this,” and withdrew from the online campus program. In the brick-and-mortar classroom, students arrive and leave when the bell rings. Blended learning is point-and-click; within reason, teacher – student communication can happen almost anytime.
Social media is a big part of the idea. Gwinnett Online Campus high school has an impressive website. It also uses Twitter and Facebook for announcements and interesting tidbits. Students and instructors are connected through Google mail accounts. Learning tools include Blackboard – the online resource formerly known as Elluminate – and the online learning company Desire 2 Learn.
This year is an incubator for many reasons. “What are our procedures?” Ray said. “What are our systems? What are our expectations? When we find a student, what support do we give them? These kids are ours.”
High school expansion, launching an online middle school in fall 2012 and an online upper elementary school in fall 2013 are among the next generation goals. Ray said Gwinnett is considering middle school “online home rooms” to foster a common identity. “I know with the middle school students we are talking about bringing them in a half day a week,” Ray said.
The online calendar is built around four mini-semesters that operate generally within the same timeline as the August-to-May traditional school year, but learning can be accelerated. More than 180 courses are available. Foreign languages enrollment was greater than Gwinnett anticipated. New advanced math courses will be added later this year.
Ray said Gwinnett will evaluate the mix of full-time and adjunct faculty. He would like to identify African-American and Hispanic male teachers as good role models for boys. “Role models are very important to the kids,” Ray said. “If I had the opportunity to hire an African-American man who wanted to work with children, it’s such an asset.”
Addendum: Here are three more well regarded fully online or blended learning programs.
Georgia Virtual School, grades 9-12, all students statewide
Cobb Virtual Academy, grades 9-12, local school students
Forsyth County iAchieve Virtual Academy, grades 6-12, local school students
Interested in learning more about online and blended learning?
Innovative educator Michael Horn will discuss “The Promise of Online Learning” on Friday, September 30, at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s second annual legislative policy briefing which is open to the public. The location is the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Click here for additional event information. Horn is co-founder and executive director of education at the Innosight Institute. He is the author of “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.”
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
A Georgia man whose execution sentence sparked international debate is scheduled to die by lethal injection on Wednesday night, more than two decades after he allegedly gunned down a Savannah police officer, and four years after Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu and Pope Benedict XVI intervened to ask that the convicted killer’s life be spared.
The Troy Davis – Mark Allen MacPhail case began on August 19, 1989. That is when off-duty police officer MacPhail was gunned down in the parking lot of a Savannah fast food restaurant where he was working security. MacPhail, married and the father of two young children, was shot at point blank range and never drew his revolver. Davis, then 20 years old, surrendered four days later. Davis was convicted of murder in August 1991 and sentenced to death.
Two decades have passed since MacPhail was shot dead. The parking lot incident began when a homeless man cried out that he was being beaten and MacPhail responded. Davis is now a 42-year-old man spending what might become his final hours at the state prison near Jackson in central Georgia. He is scheduled to receive a lethal injection at 7:00pm Wednesday. Davis appears to have no further possible federal or state appeals.
The state parole board heard testimony all day Monday and announced its decision Tuesday morning: ”Monday September 19, 2011, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles met to consider a clemency request from attorneys representing condemned inmate Troy Anthony Davis. After considering the request, the Board has voted to deny clemency.” In Georgia, clemency is granted by the state board and the governor does not rule on clemency.
The five-member board had three options: Uphold the execution sentence or re-sentence Davis to life in prison with or without parole. The statement released Tuesday did not disclose how the board voted. This was the third hearing for Davis before the state board since 2007.
The Davis – MacPhail case has evolved into a two-decade long debate over facts, the witness testimony and doubts expressed by some jurors. Seven of nine witnesses recanted testimony. One juror who testified at Monday’s hearing requested clemency for Davis because she now has doubts about her vote. Two other jurors signed statements also asking for clemency.
It also became an international story. Former President Jimmy Carter, former state Supreme Court chief justice Norman Fletcher, former FBI Director William Sessions, the NAACP and Amnesty International, along with Nobel laureate Tutu and Pope Benedict XVI have all sought clemency for Davis, as did several hundred thousand people who signed petitions.
The Davis – MacPhail case has spent two decades in state and federal courts. Davis’ death sentence was unanimously affirmed by the state Supreme Court in 1993. Fifteen years later on a 4-3 vote the state’s highest court rejected Davis’s request for a new hearing.
A federal court in Savannah denied Davis’ appeal in 2004 and two years later that ruling was upheld by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. The U.S. Supreme Court granted an emergency stay of execution in September 2008 two hours before Davis’ scheduled death.
One month later the federal Supreme Court declined to take the case, but in 2009 it did order a new U.S. District Court hearing that would provide Davis with an opportunity to submit evidence to prove his innocence. A federal judge who heard testimony for two days in Savannah decided there was not credible new evidence to overturn the execution sentence.
Savannah police officer Mark Allen MacPhail’s mother, his widow, son and daughter attended the Monday parole board hearing in Atlanta, as did the sister and other relatives of Troy Davis.
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
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