Salem-Keizer Online School Fits Students

The Web classes help teens struggling with subjects, and others like the flexibility that gives them time for other things

Sunday, July 17, 2005

RON SOBLE

The Oregonian


SALEM -- When Graham Petersen was having trouble passing algebra and his laser physicist dad couldn't break down the mathematical theory in a way his son could understand, they turned to summer school. But this one was online and in another state.

Petersen, who lives in Palo Alto, Calif., enrolled in SK Online, the Salem-Keizer School District's cyber program that's gaining a reputation as a good place for students in Oregon and elsewhere to complete high school credits at their own pace with one-on-one attention.

It began as an experiment in the summer of 1999 with 90 students and two courses: health and algebra.

This summer, about 300 students signed up for a variety of classes from basic math to literature. The program is now offered year-round and has a catalog of 320 classes, including college-credit writing courses, though not all are available during the summer session.

"People are more familiar and comfortable with online learning on the Internet. It's a natural outgrowth of Internet usage," said Jim Saffeels, a Salem-Keizer assistant principal who helped start SK Online.

Although most of the students still come from the Salem area, about 15 percent live outside the district in Oregon and another 5 percent come from out of the state, he said. Summer school costs $195 a class for all students.

"It's pretty amazing to me that where in this day and age you can go to your neighborhood high school, you can also go to a school halfway across the country," Saffeels said.

In fact, SK Online's Web page trumpets: "Offering accredited courses to students worldwide."

Petersen's school counselor recommended SK Online to him, but other out-of-the-area students have found it doing Internet searches or simply by word of mouth.

Petersen, 17, will be a senior at Palo Alto High this fall. He plays tenor and alto saxophones in the school's jazz band and aspires to enter the University of Southern California's highly competitive music program. But when he grappled with the first of a two-part algebra class required for graduation, he flunked. And his dad, Alan Petersen, wasn't much help.

"His father is a power mathematician, a CalTech grad, and math always came easy to him," said Burt Kanner, SK Online's only full-time teacher.

But the young Petersen retook the first part of the algebra class last summer through SK Online and got a B from Kanner, and now he's enrolled in the second part of the course this summer.

"Online you've got to be that kind of person and be organized and say, 'I'm going to work right now and get something done,' " Petersen said. "You've got to be very self-disciplined."

Going online is natural for youths Taking an online class is similar to navigating a Web site. Students typically log on to the class to get reading lists and assignments, they contact their teacher via an internal e-mail system and can check their progress through a "grade book" feature. They work independently and can call teachers by telephone if need be.

SK Online is a quality cyber resource, said Kirk deFord, a consultant with the federally financed nonprofit Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory based in Portland, which studies cyber-based learning programs.

"They have well-constructed classes," he said. "They are well-written and they are delivered with a high degree of professional competence."

The Salem-Keizer program is on par with other places that offer online summer school for high school students, including Oregon State University and Portland State University, and the Medford-based Oregon Online that caters to rural students.

Alexis Russ, 15, of the Northern California city of Placerville, might qualify as a poster teenager for how virtual classrooms can change learning habits and lifestyles. More and more students are attuned to taking online courses that, unlike traditional classrooms, allow them to plan their daily school and personal time.

Upon leaving a traditional eighth grade classroom a year ago, Russ decided to forgo a regular high school and instead get her entire high school education online. In consultation with her father, John Russ, the teen selected SK Online as her virtual high school.

"With online, I can work at my own pace," she said. That's important to her because she loves riding her three horses, two paints and a thoroughbred-mustang mix, in competition.

She's up at dawn, concentrating on her online class work, and then takes off riding in the early afternoon. Through eighth grade, she said, her teachers "rambled too much." But it's different in her cyber classroom.

"In SK we don't have to listen to a teacher talk to us for 45 minutes and then do five minutes of work," she said.

John Russ, an electrical engineer who runs a fiber-optics and communications company called SSL Industries, is a big supporter of online education. "I think it's a great life skill," he said. "It does teach you to be your own boss."

Other reasons for the growing popularity include giving more opportunities to students in remote areas or those with health or emotional problems, helping students make up classes they didn't pass or allowing gifted students to take a wider variety of classes.

DeFord, the consultant, said it's important for students to first run an online program by their home high school to make sure its curriculum is accredited and accepted by the school. He also recommended calling online officials or asking for an opportunity to log onto a class to see how it's presented and constructed.

A teacher likes the new venue Students aren't the only ones who see advantages in cyber schools. Shauna Lee Hansen, an SK Online part-time teacher, said she even likes it better than working in a traditional classroom, where she taught for 20 years before retiring.

When Hansen was at South Salem High, she recalled classrooms with as many as 36 students. "There were days I would stand at the door and greet my students and say hi and that was the only time they'd talk to me in a period," she said.

But personal contact with online students can be more immediate and frequent through e-mails and the telephone, she said.

"Sometimes they would be more open with me," she said, "and they don't feel intimidated."

Though the popularity is growing, online education won't replace brick-and-mortar classrooms anytime soon, said Kanner, SK Online's full-time teacher.

"The traditional classroom, in my opinion, has more spontaneity and students can answer right on the moment -- that teachable moment," the 45-year teaching veteran said. "I believe students still need that regular, almost daily, contact with that human, and the computer can almost supplement that."

Ron Soble: 503-302-8118 ronsoble@msn.com

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Darren Hunter, SK Online Lead Teacher• Jason Weeks, Roberts HS Principal