Sunday, June 7, 2009 | Fifteen-year-old Kevin Groarke does not have to deal with homeroom or the obnoxious clanging of bells, urging him from class to class. He wakes up on his own schedule. He takes breaks when he wants to. And he likes it. Class begins and ends when he logs in or out of his computer, which delivers lessons from iHigh Virtual Academy — the new online school in San Diego Unified.
But Groarke is a rarity. Fewer students enrolled in the virtual high school, a flagship program for Superintendent Terry Grier, than were originally expected to do so this year. Though thousands of students have taken online classes while still enrolled at ordinary schools, the school only gets state money for the two dozen students who are now solely enrolled in the virtual school. It was an unwelcome financial hit while San Diego Unified was grappling with the most severe budget crisis in recent memory: an estimated $106 million deficit.
But it is also an investment in a new way of learning — a more independent, more individualized approach that is spreading beyond the virtual school through digitized classrooms and laptops for each student. And it is raising new questions and worries about education in the digital age.
“It’s got tons of potential,” said Bob Camacho, a social studies teacher at the school. “We might need to encourage people more to think of us first for kids that need an atypical type of experience. Kids are not cookie cutters.”
While the name sounds fanciful, the virtual high school is a new incarnation of an old program, independent study, which allows teens to cover material at their own pace and earn a diploma. Each student is supervised by a teacher who collects their work, gives out materials, and signs an agreement with the student and their parent or guardian outlining what they are studying and when their work is due.
They do most of their work on the computer, on their own, but can come to campus for extra help. Principal Mary Lange touts it as an innovation meant to reach teens who would otherwise tune out, fail their classes, or even drop out. It also catches students who might otherwise leave San Diego Unified for one of the growing crop of charter schools built around independent study.