WASHINGTON – After he finishes an advanced placement macroeconomics test, South River High School senior Stefano Stratakis turns it in to his teacher — 2,000 miles away in Arizona.
The Anne Arundel County senior is one of about 260 high school students in 17 jurisdictions around the state, from rural to urban, who are going online to take courses their school systems might not otherwise be able to offer.
Courses range from advanced placement classes to obscure subjects to dropout recovery classes tailored to meet the needs of former students.
“We’re trying to give them more choices of how they can take classes, many good alternatives,” said Shelley Johnson, Montgomery County Public Schools career and technology education director. “They have more things they want to do and take. It gives them more flexibility in their schedules.”
The Maryland Students Online Consortium, established by the state in 2002, offers more than 20 high-school level courses to students who might not otherwise be able to take them. While some counties charge a fee for some courses, the program has received from $330,000 to $450,000 in federal grants each year that allows most classes to be offered at no charge to students.
The state approves the content of the courses, but does not provide most of that content: It either buys the software, for popular classes, or contracts with private providers who teach the classes that only enroll a few students.
The courses, in systems as different as Wicomico County and Baltimore City, range from advanced placement statistics or government classes to accounting, biology and computer science.
In smaller counties, the online consortium lets students take classes that the school system does not have the resources to offer, especially those classes where only a handful of students might sign up.
“What it’s doing for us is allowing us to broaden our course offerings for some of our better students,” said Nancy Smoker, Somerset County Public Schools technology and media supervisor.
The online grant program let Somerset County’s Washington High School offer physics to two students last spring, the first time in a couple of years that the class was taught, said guidance counselor Greg Montresor.
But rural counties are not the only ones to benefit.
In Prince George’s County, online courses give students in the Community-Based Classroom, a high school dropout recovery program, an alternative to night or weekend classes or commuting to different locations.
“The lessons don’t have to be done here,” said Gwen Rocque, a guidance counselor for Community-Based Classroom. “If they get off at work at 11 p.m., they can check their e-mail, send an e-mail to the professor. They can access the course at any time. They’re not limited by time or location.”
In Baltimore County, Lansdowne High School was not able to offer advanced placement economics in a classroom this year because of a scheduling conflict — but 14 students who signed up for it are now able to take the class online.
Sometimes it is the students who have scheduling conflicts. Online courses let them fit the classes into their schedules, officials said.
“If you have this kind of service, you could have one computer lab where students are taking psychology, government, other AP courses,” said Deborah O’Neal, Lansdowne High’s on-site coordinator. “You could have literally in one room 10 kids taking three different courses.”
The state requires each participating school to have an on-site mentor, like O’Neal, to help with the technical aspects of the courses and generally keep tabs on the students.
The courses themselves are taught by teachers who are certified to teach online as well as in their subject areas. And the classes are not for slackers, educators say.
“These courses are rigorous,” said Barbara Noll, an instructional specialist for Prince George’s County schools. “They are much more difficult, I think, than the traditional classes.”
Ryan Imbriale, Web program coordinator for Baltimore County Public Schools, said the online program provides “the same quality education, simply in a different delivery. The delivery system still permits them to communicate and interact with the teacher.”
But there are some drawbacks to a virtual classroom. Montgomery County, for example, requires that students in the county’s online health and SAT prep courses meet with their teachers three times a semester.
“Based on the research . . . the success of online courses goes up if they have some face-to-face interaction with the teachers,” Johnson said.
“This is not ever going to take the place of a classroom teacher,” said Lansdowne’s O’Neal. “This is something that opens up opportunities in schools where you cannot run a course.”
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