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Want more from high school?

In many states, students can go online to broaden their choice of class

Before high school teacher Kimberly Rugh got down to business at the start of a recent school week, she joked with her students about how she'd had to clean cake out of the corners of her house after her 2-year-old son's birthday party. Then she reminded her English II pupils that overdue assignments would be counted against them on their upcoming progress reports, and she promised to get caught up soon with "a mega amount" of grading.

This friendly combination of chitchat and class management took place not in front of a blackboard but in an E-mail message that Rugh sent to the 145 students she's teaching at the Florida Virtual School, one of the nation's leading online high schools. Now in its fifth year, the state-funded institution enrolls 3,505 students and employs 41 full-time and 27 part-time teachers. Students can take a wide range of regular, honors, and Advanced Placement classes and choose from one of three paces: traditional, accelerated, or extended. The school's motto is "any time, any place, any path, any pace."

The number of online high schools has grown quickly in the past few years. Most offer classes intended to supplement regular high school courses, though many plan to offer their own diplomas as well. (Online schools offering a full curriculum for grade school childrenЦusually home-schoolersЦare spreading, too, but at a much slower rate.) Online high schoolsЦor individual Web-based AP classes offered by companies like Apex LearningЦare now planned or underway in numerous states, including Massachusetts, Kentucky, Illinois, Nebraska, and Michigan.

Florida's E-school attracts many students who need flexible scheduling, from budding tennis stars and young musicians to brothers Tobias and Tyler Heeb, who take turns working on the computer while helping out with their family's clam-farming business on Pine Island, off Florida's southwest coast. Home-schoolers also are well represented. Most students live in Florida, but 55 hail from West Virginia, where a severe teacher shortage makes it hard for many students to take advanced classes. Seven kids from Texas and four from Shanghai round out the student body.

The great majority of Florida Virtual SchoolersЦ80 percentЦare enrolled in regular Florida public or private high schools. Some are busy overachievers like Sarah Hackney, 17, student government president at DeSoto County High School in rural Arcadia, whose 1,050-student school offers no AP classes. She took AP American government last year and is signed up for AP microeconomics and HTML programming this semester. "I don't want to be left behind in the college rush," she says. Others are retaking classes they barely passed the first time. "I would prefer not to be in class with a bunch of sophomores," says 18-year-old Mark Miner, a senior at Bartram Trail High School in the suburbs of Jacksonville, who wants to raise the D he earned in 10th-grade English to match the A's he's earning now.

Personal touch.

The school's biggest challenge is making sure that students aren't left to sink or swim on their own. After the school experienced a disappointing course completion rate of just 50 percent in its early years, Executive Director Julie Young made a priority out of what she calls "relationship-building," asking teachers to stay in frequent E-mail and phone contact with their students. That personal touch has helped: The completion rate is now 80 percent.

Critics of online classes say that while they may have a limited place, they are a poor substitute for the face-to-face contact and socialization that take place in brick-and-mortar classrooms. "The bulk of understanding is best acquired in a classroomЦin a community of fellow learners," says Alan Warhaftig, a Los Angeles teacher who heads a nonprofit group that's critical of Internet education. Despite opportunities for online chats, some virtual students say they'd prefer to have more interaction with their peers. "The main thing that I miss in this online setting is class discussion," says Hackney.

Students and parents are quick to acknowledge that virtual schooling isn't for everyone. "If your child's not focused and motivated, I can only imagine it would be a nightmare," says Patricia Haygood of Orlando, whose two daughters are thriving at the Florida school. For those who have what it takes, however, virtual learning fills an important niche. "I can work at my own pace, on my own time," says Hackney. "It's the ultimate in student responsibility."

Author: Ben Wildavsky

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