The students at Gwinnett County’s newest high school don’t have to worry about missing the bus or forgetting their locker combinations. They don’t have to worry about hall passes, finding a seat in the cafeteria or making it to their desk before the tardy bell sounds.
In fact, these students don’t have to worry about showing up to the school at all.
In August, the Gwinnett Online Campus became the first virtual high school to open in the state of Georgia. The charter school, located in a suburb just northeast of Atlanta, is the latest addition to the state’s largest public school system that wrangles with more than 150,000 students each year. Of those, roughly 42,000 are high school students.
With more than 800,000 residents and a median family income nearly $10,000 above the national average, Gwinnett County is one of the most populous and wealthiest counties in the state.
The charter school stems from an online service the county has been using since 1999, making it the oldest online education program in Georgia. Since 2006, the program has won numerous awards and honors, including designation as an Elluminate Center of Excellence service in 2008.
After the Gwinnett County Board of Education approved the program’s charter school status earlier this year, 160 students, ranging from freshman to senior status, enrolled for online classes.
“The perception of a student sitting in a basement, a dark room in front of a computer screen, those aren’t our kids,” said Christopher Ray, principal of the cyber school. “These are kids that have goals in life, that want to achieve them and they engage in their community.”
Students enrolled in Gwinnett’s Online Campus are held to the same expectations as they would be in traditional brick-and-mortar schools. The curriculum and homework assignments are identical.
The only difference, according to Gwinnett County Public Schools spokesperson Jorge Quintana, is that the students can complete all of their homework and assignments using the Internet and other tools.
“It’s not really easier,” Ray said. “It’s just a different way of delivering the instruction.”
Yet, the online school isn’t completely virtual. Teachers and administrators work from a central office equipped with classroom space for learning labs and test taking.
Divided into mini-semesters, the structure of the school allows students a bit more flexibility.
“[The semesters] start in August, October, January and March,” Quintana said. “If they [the students] want to graduate early, they can take an additional class, which is available to students for a fee.”
One of the benefits of the school, Quitana said, was the ability for students to complete their educational goals at their convenience, and from the comfort of their own home. Even though the students interact online, he added, doesn’t mean that students lack interaction from instructors.
“They do have that time to meet with their teachers,” Quintana said. “The staff members make themselves even more available to students, to provide them with support.”
Next year, the Gwinnett Online Campus will expand to include middle school curriculum and, if all goes as planned, fifth grade courses by early 2013.
The first virtual high schools in the country started opening in the mid-1990s. By 2003, approximately 36 percent of school districts around the country offered some form of online enrollment, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Ray, who served as an elementary school principal for seven years before overseeing the Online Campus, said many people still hold misconceptions about what virtual classes really are.
“There are a lot of bad stories out there in the ‘90s about people getting diplomas from ‘diplomavilles’ or offshore schools,” Dr. Ray said. “But the instructions here are just like if you were going to a traditional high school.”
The education may be traditional, but in many ways the school is innovative. Ambitious students can finish their high school careers in three years instead of four. The school’s ‘move on when ready’ approach allows kids to test out of lower levels classes and enroll in a higher-level before the semester ends.
“It’s really dependent on the learner, and how fast they want to progress through the curriculum,” Ray said, adding that online students share a different relationship with their instructors than many are accustomed to.
“We’ve had to retrain our students, to tell them that it’s okay to have a conversation with a teacher,” he said. “We encourage them to call their teachers if they’re having questions or problems, or e-mail them or text them.”
Since this is the first year of operation for the charter school, data on retention rates and other statistics are not yet available.
The school has seen some students withdraw, but Ray is optimistic that online integration will bolster student achievement in a state that frequently ranks near the bottom of national test scores.
“I see achievement getting better and better,” he said. “It’s being more reactive and more individualized for our students. I think the analytics that are coming down the road are really going to emphasize the impact and the pulling together of best practices that our teachers are doing.”
Three other school systems in Georgia — Cobb, Forsyth and Fulton counties — are in the process of developing similar online intitiaves. Ray said that in the ensuing years, online integration would likely become increasingly vital to the state’s school systems.
“As time goes on, there’s going to be more and more discussion and collaboration between all the programs,” he said. “I think it’s going to be really integrated in the entire instructional program.”