2010-02-24 / Front Page

Schools now offer online diploma

By Katherine Houstoun

Sterlicia Riley, a 10th grader at L.C. Bird High School, works on an assignment for her online world history class. Lisa Billings/Chesterfield Observer Sterlicia Riley, a 10th grader at L.C. Bird High School, works on an assignment for her online world history class. Lisa Billings/Chesterfield Observer Like many high school seniors, James River High School student Olivia Rappe is working her way through a course in British literature, studying the great works of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Joyce. But unlike her peers, she is doing so in Quito, Ecuador. It’s an option that is only possible through Chesterfield County Public Schools’ (CCPS) expanded online class offerings.

“Twelfth-grade British literature was the last requirement I needed to graduate with an advanced diploma back in the United States,” explains Rappe, 17, who is studying in Ecuador for the duration of her senior year. “Obviously there are no regular British literature classes here in Ecuador. I wouldn’t have been able to study abroad if these types of options weren’t available.”

CCPS initiated online classes about 10 years ago as an option for at-risk students, but has expanded its offerings to appeal to a wide range of students. Currently, 829 Chesterfield students are taking classes online, with enrollment rising steadily each year.

“Probably one of the fastest growing educational phenomena nationwide at the K-12 level is online learning,” says David Rankin, who manages the online program. “Our classes are available to any student, though they do have to have the approval of their school counselor and school principal.”

In addition to students like Rappe who are studying abroad, CCPS’ online classes are made up of transfer students who are adjusting to Chesterfield’s block scheduling, participants in specialty programs who are trying to squeeze in another class and other teens who can’t attend regular classes, whether they’re traveling on the professional motocross circuit or holding down a job. This fall, the school system also plans to open its classes to home-schoolers in the county.

CCPS currently offers 24 online courses, including six electives. Students could conceivably go online to take all of the classes needed for a high school diploma, though school officials don’t anticipate many doing so. “We think most students will take some of their classes in their home school and the rest of their courses online,” explains Rankin.

Rankin says online learning eventually could help with classroom overcrowding, though that was never a primary concern. “Online classes were not designed to help with overcrowding of classes,” he says. “As we offer more and more opportunities to take courses online, there could be some impact on the number of students who are in a face-to-face environment. It could have an impact, but it’s not designed to target a problem such as that.”

The online classes have been developed jointly by experienced teachers and instructional design professionals who provide expertise on content and technology, respectively. Typically, students will complete one assignment per week according to their own schedule, be it during the evening, over the weekend or during a weekday study hall.

The flexibility of the online class system is one of its greatest advantages, but it takes a disciplined student to thrive with that sort of freedom. “Generally speaking, the students who perform better are the ones who are self-motivated and have good communication skills,” says Brad Pearson, a full-time online English teacher. “You also need to be willing to take the initiative and interact with your teacher. You have to speak up because we’re not going to know otherwise. We can’t look at your face and see that you don’t seem to be getting it.”

While one might expect online learning to be more impersonal than classes conducted in a classroom, Pearson, who spent 15 years at Robious Middle School, says the reality is quite the opposite. “It’s not the day-to-day contact that I really enjoyed in the classroom,” he admits. “On the other hand, I never really had too much time during the day to talk to the kids who really needed to talk to me. Whenever it’s convenient for them, I can interact with online students via phone or e-mail, which really I didn’t do with my students [in class].”

Cabell Miltenberger, an online teacher of health and physical education, agrees. You get to know kids, I think, in a more personal way,” says the veteran teacher, who taught at L.C. Bird High School for seven years. “When you’re in a classroom, you have 40 kids sitting there, and you don’t get to spend a lot of one-on-one time. Just by the design of the course, you’re touching base with kids on a daily basis, so you have more one-on-one interaction.”

Rankin says the online classes are comparable to face-to-face classes in terms of rigor, relevance and engagement. They also cost the school system the same amount as a traditional face-to-face class. CCPS currently is working on making the courses more interactive for students. “It’s not just a textbooks online environment,” says Rankin. “Students log into the learning management system to access their course, and they’ll have a variety of reading materials, activities, assignments. There might be multimedia, like audio files or video for them to watch, discussion boards for them to engage in online discussion with their fellow students and their teacher. We’re building into our courses the opportunity for podcasting and blogging.”

While only eight online courses currently use the advanced technology, by fall, all courses will have the engagement capabilities built into them. Exposure to this sort of technology will surely benefit those students who choose to pursue higher education where online classes are offered. Of course, as in the classroom, success depends entirely on the student.

“Some kids are ready and mature enough to do it, and some are not,” says Miltenberger. “We have a pretty good success rate.”

For more information about CCPSOnline, go to

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