Online Education Solutions Serve At-Risk Students

09/03/2009  |  DELORES SHEARON
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As major U.S. cities struggle to lower their high school dropout rates, increased accessibility to online education may improve graduation success for at-risk students outside the classroom.

Americans are concerned about how the nation’s education system and the future of its most at-risk students. “There are two influences in a student’s life that impact achievement: what happens inside the school building, and what happens outside of it. Both must be addressed if we are to successfully raise graduation rates,” America’s Promise Alliance President Marguerite Kondracke said May 12 during a House of Representatives’ Education and Labor Committee hearing.

Filling the At-Risk  Gap Electronically

That’s where online education comes into play — by helping students who want or need to achieve more, says Kristi Smalley, principal at the University of Missouri High School, an accredited online high school that serves both diploma-seeking students and traditional high-schoolers with courses that range from core requirements to electives and Advanced Placement subjects.

“We fill the gap for at-risk students who may have fallen behind by helping their local schools offer solutions that encourage those students to complete the course work they’ve missed and go on to graduate,” she says.

MU High School is one of several university-sponsored institutions across the country offering options that can benefit students who’ve had less-than-successful high school careers. By working with counselors and parents, online schools can afford students the additional time and lesson attention they need to pass courses required for graduation, no matter where they live.

Online Courses Keep  Students on Track

Good independent study habits are essential to making a student’s distance education experience successful. Smalley says that even one positive online course experience helps a student achieve more inside and outside the traditional classroom.

“Students who are self-motivated often enjoy independent study courses, which allow them to work at their own pace,” she says. “Others benefit from online classes that follow a scheduled timeline, with predetermined starting and ending dates, specific assignment due dates and routinely scheduled exams.”

For that reason, MUHS and other accredited online schools often offer semester-based courses, especially in challenging areas such as language arts and advanced subjects that are meant to prepare students for college.

Online learning can be advantageous for students who need to recover credits or who are trying to get ahead. Because it’s self-paced, online course work doesn’t take students away from time spent in their local schools and with their peer groups. With MU High School’s independent study courses, for example, students can sign up any day of the year and, in most cases, take up to nine months to complete their work from home or anywhere they typically study.

Of all the benefits to students who choose to study online, Smalley says flexibility is probably the most-appreciated. "Because they are in charge of their schedules and can manage their course workload around other commitments, such as family activities or part-time jobs, students tend to more readily buy into their own success."

How Far We’ve Come

2009 findings by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, creators of the “Cities in Crisis” report, show the median income for an adult who does not graduate high school and works in one of the nation’s largest metropolitan regions is just $14,000 annually, significantly lower than the $24,000 earned by those with diplomas in the same areas. The center’s analyses further showed that earning a high school diploma raises an individual’s annual income potential by about 71 percent on average.

More than 25 years ago, a disheartening revelation about America’s education system swept the country in the form of “An Open Letter to the American People.” The prominent 1983 report, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, developed by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Commission on Excellence in Education, clamored that the educational system was failing our students and jeopardizing the country’s future.

At that time the commission made official recommendations for transforming high school curricula to better prepare graduating seniors for continuing into higher education or successfully entering the workforce. Those recommendations included more English, math, science, social studies and foreign language credits as requirements for earning a high school diploma.

Since then, several million American students have been born, started school and already left the nation’s classrooms to embark on their adulthood. How effective were we in preparing them compared to their parents? The answer is definitively better. Regardless of their public, private or parochial designations, and urban, suburban or rural locations, high schools nationwide systematically have raised the bar.

The U.S. educational system is asking more from its students, and those same students want more from their schools. However, it’s not realistic for all schools to offer extensive science, such as physics, or specialty courses in foreign languages. And despite the increased diversity of subjects offered, alarming numbers of students are still falling behind or losing interest, and record numbers are dropping out.

Students Divided by Success

In 2009, the Gallup Student Poll began measuring American student sentiment in grades five through 12 on the basis of “hope, engagement and well-being” in relation to their education. The nationwide survey intends to track results for the next 10 years. Initial findings, released in May, showed that half of the more than 71,000 students polled across 18 states are not “hopeful” as defined by Gallup researchers, with at least one-third of them saying they feel “stuck,” meaning they’re struggling or suffering, and the remainder responding that they are “discouraged.”

The grade levels showed little variance in their responses, and when it came to foreseeing success in high school, the vast majority of students (95 percent) said they believe they will graduate.

But the reality is a harsh contrast. According to the “Cities in Crisis” study, first published by the nonprofit Editorial Projects in Education Research Center in 2008, fewer than 75 percent of students actually will receive a high school diploma in the coming years.

In the 2009 update of that report, 16 of the nation’s 50 largest cities were named as having graduation rates lower than 50 percent in their main school districts. In the Southeast, Atlanta was identified as having a 44 percent graduation rate. Nationwide, research indicates that nearly one in three of today’s high school students fails to graduate — equivalent to 1.2 million students dropping out each year. That’s an average of 7,000 American students lost each day of every school year.

For more information about MU High School, part of the university’s Center for Distance and Independent Study, visit cdis.missouri.edu/go/seen809.aspx or call 800-609-3727.
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