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Online School Targets Hispanics, Students At Risk

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 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.

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.

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 be 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.

In Idaho, 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.

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