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Gwinnett’s New Online Campus High School Prepares for August Launch

Mike Klein

Increasingly, learning happens anytime and anywhere. Georgia’s largest school system will launch an entirely online high school in August.   And the General Assembly might vote next week to create a new statewide clearinghouse for online content supplied by school districts.

Gwinnett County has 42,000 high school students. This fall Gwinnett will launch an Online Campus high school for 125 students with expansion already planned into middle and lower grades. This new school expands an ambitious online program that began eleven years ago.

“Our interest level for online courses has grown over 100% every year,” said Gwinnett associate superintendent Steven Flynt. “If we look at how the online program has grown, we’ve served over 30,000 students. This past year we had over 5,000 students enrolled in at least one class.”

The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) predicts 50% of all high school content will be taught online within eight years. “Fast Facts About Online Learning” says online courses are available in 48 states and 27 have statewide full-time online schools.

“Virtual schools are where we are going. I think we all know that,” Georgia state Senator John Albers said during a recent state capitol education committee meeting. “It’s not leading edge anymore. It’s today’s technology. We’ve got to find a way to get kids through school. If they need to work part of the day, they can go to school online at whatever time of day it makes sense.”

Most Georgia public education students … there are 1.65 million … will always remain in traditional classrooms where some will have access to completely online or blended instruction. But faced with high quality competition from online education companies, Georgia districts are starting to put more aggressive emphasis on cyber learning strategies.

Forsyth County opened iAchieve Virtual Academy this year with about 130 online students in grades 6-to-12. Students need high speed internet access and their own computer. Courses are approved by the district and the state. Academy graduates will earn a Forsyth diploma.

Gwinnett is widely respected for innovation. This year the district received the $1 million Broad Prize for urban education excellence from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.

Christopher Ray is a 17-year veteran of Gwinnett schools, and for the past seven years Ray has been an elementary school principal. Ray was selected as Online Campus high school principal in January. Student applications for the new online high school were due the end of last week.

Ray said now “the real fun begins, looking at the students who will be with us next year, looking at the courses we need to offer. Are there courses that we need to develop before August? There are no problems. There are great opportunities. It’s like a big chess game. If you make one move, what are the implications and the repercussions?”

With 160,000 total students, Gwinnett is the state’s largest system. The number of entirely online students is expected to increase annually. Middle school courses are planned in fall 2012 followed by third, fourth and fifth grade upper elementary online curriculum one year later.

Associate superintendent Flynt described starting the online high school as “getting down into the weeds. You need to look at the concept and the big picture items but you can’t miss the details.” Serious planning began two years ago. Public announcement was held until January, Flynt said, because, “We wanted to make sure we had everything in order.”

Gwinnett will combine state-approved curriculum with courses from Desire2Learn, the Canadian company that is a major online player. Online students will take all state tests that are required for traditional high school students. They will earn a Gwinnett County diploma, no different from the diploma earned by brick-and-mortar students.

Ray said Gwinnett will combine existing school district instructors with adjunct faculty, and most will have previous experience teaching in Gwinnett schools. Instructors will be provided with cell phones so they can maintain pupil contact. Students must provide a computer, but Ray said students who cannot afford one will be assessed for help on an individual need basis.

Gwinnett’s expansion might include an opportunity for its online courses to be used statewide. Lilburn Rep. David Casas introduced legislation to create the Online Clearinghouse Act.

“This opens the door for school choice at a micro-level,” Casas said. “This is so new. The only state that’s doing it is Ohio and they just started so this is front-line stuff, really cutting edge.” Under House Bill 175 any school system could offer its courses to the Online Clearinghouse.

The Clearinghouse would operate inside the Department of Education which manages the Georgia Virtual School. GAVS offers curriculum but not diplomas. About 9,000 students per year use GAVS for advanced placement and other courses not offered in their own schools.  Another 20,000 use GAVS for credit recovery, bringing its total impact to about 30,000 students per year.

The biggest difference between GAVS and the proposed Clearinghouse is where the courses originate: GAVS develops much of its curriculum; the Clearinghouse would use local school district content. HB 175 passed the House and a Senate vote is expected before the session ends next week.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

April 6, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , ,

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