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New Online School Targets Hispanics, At-risk Students

BOISE, Idaho

The state’s newest virtual charter school is expected to go online this fall, but only after a strategic campaign to recruit Hispanics and teenagers at risk of quitting or getting kicked out of public high schools.

Cliff Green, executive director of the iSucceed Virtual High School, has spent the past two months stumping in juvenile correctional facilities, cities with significant Hispanic populations and community programs aimed at getting kids off the streets.

The nonprofit online charter school is part of Insight Schools, a Portland-based company that operates one of the largest networks of virtual high schools in the country. With schools in Oregon, California, Washington and Wisconsin, Insight plans to open more this fall in Idaho, Minnesota and Kansas.

If the Idaho school opens in September as scheduled, Green wants to maintain a Hispanic student population of at least 20 percent. As part of their recruiting strategy, administrators bought ads on Spanish radio stations, advertised classes with bilingual brochures and drafted Hispanic community leaders to serve on its board of directors.

When Green learned a large portion of the St. Mary’s Catholic Church congregation in downtown Boise was Latino, he wrangled an appointment to speak after Sunday services.

“If there was any way to get me to go to mass,” said Green, who is not Catholic, “this would be it.”

Born out of gaps in traditional education, online schools have historically targeted advanced students who learn at a faster pace, or those who struggle adhering to a normal class schedule, such as young athletes. But recently, many of these virtual schools nationwide have shifted focus to at-risk students, said Susan Patrick, president of the Virginia-based North American Council for Online Learning.

“To me this is a really good sign,” said Patrick, a former U.S. Department of Education technology director. “We’re struggling with a fairly largely high dropout rate.”

Nationwide, approximately 25 percent of high school students did not graduate on time with a regular high school diploma in 2004, according to a 2007 report from the U.S. Department of Education. In Idaho, more than 2,100 high school students dropped out last year. Of those, 468 claim Hispanic heritage, according to the state Department of Education.

Providing an online alternative to students who’ve failed in traditional public schools is crucial considering nationwide high school enrollment rates, Patrick said.

“They’re not being challenged, they’re not being engaged. People just assume they’re not smart,” she said.

Idaho teenager Alex Torres is one of more than 1,000 students who have expressed interest in the iSucceed Virtual High School. Torres, 15, said he earned As and Bs throughout middle school before he enrolled at a Caldwell High School last fall and started flunking math, English, and science as classmates moved through subjects at a faster clip.

He became frustrated with teachers who didn’t seem to care that he was falling behind.

“When I raise my hand,” Torres said, “they don’t call on me.”

He plans to enroll at iSucceed Virtual High School in the fall, get a part-time job and start saving up for college. The online school will let him choose from 120 classes, provide him with a laptop, printer, and assign him a mentor who will track his course work weekly. Students will meet with Idaho-certified instructors in person, online or by telephone.

While the school requires all students, including Torres, to take a time management course, his mom, Anabel Chaves, questions whether her son has enough discipline for a school where he chooses when to learn from home.

“It’s not going to make him get up and go to school,” Chaves said.

Before graduating from the iSucceed Virtual High School, students must complete 44 credits, participate in a community service project, submit a student portfolio and complete an exit interview.

Elementary and secondary students were enrolled in 50,000 online courses in the United States in 2000, according to the North American Council for Online Learning. Those online class offerings grew to 500,000 in 2005, and 700,000 were counted last year. An estimated 1 million courses are now being taken online by students, a number of these virtual education programs have reported success with at-risk student populations, Patrick said.

“I think that’s why more states are offering them,” she said.

While only 18 states allow for the operation of full-time virtual schools, Patrick said she expects online learning to become mainstream in nearly all schools nationwide by 2016.

So far, nearly 1,100 students have expressed interest in the Idaho school. Most of them have cleared enrollment criteria, which requires students to be under 21, state residents and 8th grade graduates, Green said.

The school has enrolled 417 students, and another 233 are in the admission process. An additional 53 admitted students have special needs and 18 have been expelled from Idaho school districts, meaning their enrollment is pending approval from the school’s board of directors, Green said.

The school will receive an initial 25 percent of its funding from the state this summer to cover startup costs and administrators will use a $100,000 grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation to assist families unable to afford internet or dial-up connections, Green said.

While the Idaho online charter school was created with a particular focus, Insight schools nationwide are among those reporting successful results with students who’ve struggled in traditional classrooms, said Insight founder Keith Oelrich.

He also discounts complaints from critics, who say online education compromises the importance socialization plays in the overall education of students at traditional schools. Oelrich says students can become just as isolated in traditional schools as their online counterparts.

“Generally, I think that comment just comes from people who don’t understand what an online school is,” he said. “If you walk into a high school today, you’ll see two kids standing 20 feet apart texting each other.”

In Idaho, a state that has embraced education alternatives, more than 10,000 students attend charter schools, an additional 7,000 are on waiting lists, said Idaho Schools Superintendent Tom Luna.

The state has 30 charter schools and iSucceed Virtual High School is scheduled to become Idaho’s fifth online-based virtual schools. Luna said he’d like to see more state charter schools focus on individual populations and specific student needs like iSucceed has done.

The state charter commission is the process of approving schools that cater to Russian students and students with a form of autism known as Asperger syndrome disorder, Luna said.

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