Atlanta turns to online classes to boost graduation rates

With nearly half of its students failing to graduate on time, Atlanta’s school system turned to online education as one way to help.

The Atlanta Virtual Academy program won’t solve the problem of students dropping out or falling behind, but it could slowly inch Atlanta Public Schools’ 51 percent graduate rate upward.

About 100 high school students enrolled in the pilot program this summer, with 43 percent of those who were retaking classes earning passing grades. The school district considers that a win — those students are one step closer to graduation than they were before the online option.

This summer, rising junior Darius Brown spent a few hours every day at a computer retaking an algebra and geometry class he failed in the spring. Working remotely, he scored a B and stayed on track.

“I was worried about it because I wanted to graduate on time. I didn’t want to be late,” said Brown, who attends North Atlanta High School. “This was the first class I’ve failed, ever, so I wanted to make it up. I wanted to fix a past mistake and go on.”

The online course fit Brown’s needs because he said he was less distracted at his home desk than in a full classroom. Once he got into a routine of studying at 5:30 p.m. every day, he was able to absorb instruction at his own pace.

“The ultimate goal of any of our programs where we’re giving kids the opportunity to gain credit is to increase graduation rates, period,” said Doryiane Gunter, Atlanta Public Schools’ program manager for virtual learning. “If a student is two credits short of being promoted to the next grade, or if a student has a scheduling conflict that prevents them from being promoted, this is another way for them to get it done.”

Atlanta’s online program is the newest in Georgia, but similar computer-based courses have been offered for years by the state and surrounding school districts including Gwinnett, DeKalb, Cobb, Henry, Cherokee and Rockdale counties. Atlanta Virtual Academy’s enrollment is expected to grow in the fall semester, and more students have already signed up.

The online courses mirror the teachings of brick-and-mortar schools, with regular assignments, video lectures, group discussions and tests.

Teachers are available to answer questions, and the course software allows them to track whether students are spending enough time online. Students are expected to log on between 20 and 24 hours a week for a class during the summer, and between 12 and 15 hours a week during the longer semesters in the regular school year.

Across the country, the number of students learning online is rapidly growing, but research into the effectiveness of such classes is limited, said Tracy Gray, a managing director for the American Institutes for Research.

“Technology is like putting a piano in the room and expecting everybody to be (Frederic) Chopin,” Gray said. “Unless teachers know how to use the technology and the students have the necessary support they need to master the course content, then it can only go so far.”

A U.S. Department of Education study in 2010 concluded that online learning appears to be as effective as conventional classroom instruction.

Since July of last year, Georgia law has allowed students to choose whether to take free online courses from the state or their local districts, said Christina Clayton, director of instructional technology for the Georgia Department of Education, which oversees the Georgia Virtual School. This fall, about 20,000 students are expected to enroll in the state’s online courses, with about 8,000 of them seeking to recover credits from classes they’ve previously failed, and the rest taking new courses.

About 88 percent of students enrolled in the state’s credit recovery classes achieve passing grades, Clayton said. Instructional content in online courses is aligned with state standards, and students must pass end of course tests to prove their knowledge.

“We’ve been very successful in helping students who are bordering on being successful. That’s why we’re here — to make sure they can be,” she said.

One model for online instruction in Georgia is in Gwinnett County Public Schools, which started remote programs in 1999 that served about 3,000 students last school year. Since 2011, Gwinnett Online Campus has operated as a full-time charter school.

Students who have previously failed traditional classes tend to do well in online classes because they’ve already studied the content once, said Gwinnett Online Campus Principal Christopher Ray.

“It’s almost like an independent study,” Ray said. “You get out what you put into it. If you’re doing the work and working with a teacher, doing the assignments, you’re going to be successful.”

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