Online Experiment Aims For That Last Credit

Melissa Bailey Photo After falling behind freshman year, Freddy Beloz needs just an extra half a credit to graduate high school in June. While his friends caught the bus, he stayed behind at an ACER computer at Wilbur Cross and started catching up.

Freddy (pictured), a senior, is one of 22 Cross students enrolled in a new credit retrieval program designed to help boost the graduation rate. The program was introduced this academic year at Cross, James Hillhouse High, Career High and New Horizons. It represents a new approach to help struggling students over the hump to get through school; its reliance on online learning has generated differences of opinion in the academic world. Helping more students graduate high school and move toward college is also a key goal of New Haven’s nascent school reform drive.

Freddy was the latest student at Cross to try out the program last week. After his friends caught the bus home or headed to soccer practice, Freddy stayed in the school computer lab Tuesday afternoon.

He said he slipped behind in his credits freshman year at his old school, East Haven High, where he took an extra study hall for half a year instead of enrolling in a class.

He opened a program on the ACER called Blackboard and looked at a lesson on social studies.

About half an hour into the period, he turned to Assistant Principal Larry Conaway, who supervises the program. He asked if he had any other choice.

“It’s this or summer school,” said Conaway. He urged him to continue with the lesson—and collect the credit he needs to move forward in life.

The online classes are offered through a contract with the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium, which runs a program called CT Virtual Learning. The new programs come as school districts seek to comply with a school reform law spearheaded by New Haven state Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, former Bethel state Rep. Jason Bartlett and the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. Online learning was one piece of broader education reforms that the caucus pushed through the legislature last May.

According to the new law, effective July 1, 2010, all high schools with a dropout rate of at least 8 percent are required to give kids the option of taking online classes. Of the city’s nine high schools and four transitional programs, all except the Sound School have dropout rates higher than that threshold.

The 2010 dropout rate was 25.3 percent at Cross, 45.2 percent at Hillhouse, 70.2 percent at New Horizons and 12.1 percent at Career, according to the latest count using the district’s new method of calculation.

(Click here for a school-by-school breakdown of high school dropout and graduation rates.)

The New Haven school district got federal funding to start an online learning program in only those four schools.

In doing so, the schools are following a nationwide trend of kids turning online to recover credits; the strategy is boosting graduation rates in places like Baltimore and New York City.

On their own time or in supervised after-school sessions, New Haven students can now jump online and fill out self-guided lessons on subjects like math, English, history and life management skills. The courses are staffed by credentialed teachers with whom the students interact online.

Cross is paying for 30 licenses; 22 are currently being used, according to Conaway. The 30 licenses cost $8,250. The program is paid for by Cross’s $2.1 million School Improvement Grant, which aims to “turn around” low-performing schools. It’s one of the pieces that’s falling into place as the city’s largest high school hustles to put together a plan according to the guidelines of the grant.

Melissa Bailey File PhotoPrincipal Peggy Moore (pictured) said all the pieces of the grant are now in place except for the student-teacher advisory period.

As part of the pilot credit retrieval program, Cross now staffs the computer lab from the time school ends, at 1:35 or 2:05 p.m., until 5 p.m. Participation is voluntary. Students and their parents just have to sign a pledge agreeing to abide by the rules of the program. The rules, writ large on a poster board in the computer room:

• Maintain a C average in other classes.
• Keep up good attendance, with no more than 20 absences.
• Maintain “good citizenship” in and out of school.

On a given afternoon, five or six students show up to the computer lab to take part in the retrieval program, Conaway said. Others are given a user ID so they can work from home.

“We try to give students the independence to be responsible.”

Principal Moore said the program serves a range of students. Some, like Freddy, attend regular classes at Cross during the day. Others may be more non-traditional students who are working full time or taking classes at Gateway Community College.

“A lot of these kids, they simply need one credit,” Moore said. With the online program, they can get the credit without attending class at Cross every day.

The independence doesn’t mean kids are off the hook—Conaway can check online to see if they’re logging in. If not, he said, they are urged to put in the hours on-premises, where school staff are there to help.

One goal of the program, Moore said, is to reach kids who might otherwise give up on trying to graduate from high school.

In reaching those kids, the school aims boost its four-year graduation rate, which at the last count stood at 64 percent.

Students need 24 credits to graduate Cross in June; next year they’ll need 26 to graduate.

So far four or five kids have gained credit online, according to Conaway (pictured).

A full course takes about 30 hours of work to complete, he estimated. Kids can pick up half a credit in six to seven weeks, he said. If they work hard, they can pick up two credits during the course of a year.

Conaway said the class is geared toward students who can work independently.

“If you get kids who are not motivated,” he said, “you’re setting them up for failure.”

Conaway said since the program started last fall, he has had to kick out only one student from the program. The student was disruptive in the computer lab, bringing in food, surfing the Web and distracting other students, he said.

Willina Housley (at left in photo), who’s 16, has stuck with the program for the longer haul. Last Tuesday, she and Freddy were two of three students who worked quietly at their own pace on the computers.

Willina said she slipped behind after flunking math class.

She said she missed math classes because it was “just freshman year, how you get.”

“I need two more credits,” she said, “which is why I’m here.”

She clicked through a lesson on “exploring pathways to parenting skills.”

“You go through the lesson and take a quiz,” she explained. Between answering questions, she got up to help Freddy navigate the computer system on his first day.

Willina periodically got up to help a new proctor, Lauren Aceto (at right in photo), figure out the system. Aceto is a junior at the University of New Haven studying to be a math teacher. At the credit retrieval sessions, she doubles as a proctor and math tutor.

A “Scam?”

Will she learn as much in the online session as she’s learning in class at Cross?

One critic was skeptical. Henry Levin is a professor of education and economics at Columbia University and director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia’s Teachers College.

“There are a few places that find unique ways to help kids complete the courses,” Levin said, “but teachers have to be really devoted, or they have to be extra teachers and counselors at a school.”

“I think in most cases, it is ridiculous and is a scam.”

Levin pointed out two flaws to allowing kids to learn online. First, there is “no real security provision” to assure that the students are the ones performing the work.

He cited a 2008 case where he said a New York City school was reaching out to students who “had not shown up for class all semester.” Students “picked up a packet on Friday, and turned it in on Monday, and they were given credit for the course.” The program was meant to allow them to test out of the course, but there was no telling who did the work.

“Even if the tasks are demanding, you have no idea who’s doing them,” Levin said.

Levin also questioned the value of the online work compared to spending time with fellow students in a regular high school class.

“Even if these people show that they can complete credit recovery, it’s not equivalent to the kind of skills you pick up by going to class, working in groups” and learning time management skills.

He said the motive behind online learning “is very simple”—“the pressure to raise graduation rates.”

“As you start to see graduation rates go up, they’re very hard to trust” as being comparable to rates achieved through classroom learning, he said. Credit retrieval programs vary widely, he said, but “there’s no comparison between what is asked for in the online learning and what is asked for in a general mainstream course.”

Back at Cross, Conaway said the school plans to gather data on the program and evaluate how it goes.

He said Cross may find out that it worked very well, or “we may find out it was a bust.”

In its pilot year, the program was offered only to juniors and seniors. Depending on how it goes, the school may expand the initiative.

He said the credit retrieval program is one way of thinking “outside the box” to boost student performance. 

“We’re trying to find out what works,” Conaway said.

“The ultimate thing you can do is get a kid like Freddy to graduate, get a kid like Willina to get back on track so she can graduate and go on to college.”


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posted by: Cross Student on February 21, 2011  9:04pm

Principal Moore mentions the student-teacher advisory. Last year, as the school was preparing for reforms for this academic year, the largest of which was dividing the school into four houses, that allowed us to get the grant money, there was one thing students and teachers agreed on: advisory groups. As a student involved in the process, it was the one thing I brought up - as did other students - over and over again. It’s a way for older kids to get to know younger kids and keep them from falling through the cracks. Sports teams do it—my team gets as aggressive as we have to with our freshmen, sometimes even physically dragging them to class when they’re trying to skip class—and this would be a way for freshmen who aren’t in sports teams to have the same kind of positive influence. For some reason, the administration is ignoring what we’ve been saying and what the grant requires. It’s hard to see why—perhaps they worry about giving up classroom time?? I’d at least like to know what the delay is.

posted by: James Brauer on February 22, 2011  7:05am

I have often wondered how well these non-traditional, online credit recovery programs actually work.

I am actually gearing my research proposal/dissertation to this very subject.  I plan to conduct a case study of a midwestern credit recovery program and try to gain the student perspective and experience, as it relates to their traditional high school experience.

I am very curious to know why, for many students that were at-risk of dropping-out of high school or actually did, is a credit recovery program one that is more successful for them.

Thanks for the article and perspective on this issue.