Carroll Co. will offer online summer school

Computer-based classes planned at six sites

program is first in area

May 31, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

In a cramped classroom just outside Westminster, some unconventional students are working toward their diplomas in an unconventional way.

They are doing coursework and reading texts in more than a half-dozen subjects, taking quizzes and completing homework - all of the things that go on in a regular classroom. But these students are doing it online.

This summer, Carroll County will use the same setup at each of its six high schools, becoming the first school district in the Baltimore area to offer online summer school to any student who needs to make up a failed course.

The switch to computer-based classes will eliminate most of the headaches - long drives for students and finding teachers to work during their vacations - associated with summer school, students and district officials said.

"With [online] summer school, there will be more motivation because you're not going to want to sit here for six weeks. If you can get done in three weeks, you can get done in three weeks," said Kelly Criss, 17, a Westminster High senior who is finishing work for her diploma at the county's computer lab for students who have dropped out or face long suspensions.

"It makes summer school less of a punishment and more about learning what you didn't learn before."

From Columbia to Crofton and Towson to Taneytown, summer school presents the same tedium for tens of thousands of students across Maryland. (In Baltimore City, between 35,000 and 46,000 students will be required to go to summer school this year after tough, new standards are making it more difficult to pass to the next grade.)

Classrooms are often hot. Repetition of material that students do not need to relearn can be mind-numbing. And worst of all for students, summer goes on without them while their friends work summer jobs, go to the beach and otherwise enjoy their break from school.

Typically, the only difference from district to district is the cost of the make-up courses: free in Baltimore City but $150 per course in Carroll and Baltimore counties, $180 in Howard, $190 in Anne Arundel, $230 in Harford and $650 in Prince George's. Some districts let students get ahead by taking classes for original credit, though often at a higher cost.

Online benefits

In Carroll, administrators are certain they've found a way to make summer school more effective - and more palatable - for students and staff alike.

They promote the benefits of offering online summer classes at all six of the county's high schools through the same arrangement they've used for three years at the county's distance-learning lab.

There, students who have dropped out or been suspended for weeks or months at a time have been able to continue - and in many cases, finish - their schoolwork in the crowded computer lab tucked away in the county's alternative school. The program has graduated about 30 students in three years.

The school system won't need to hire the administrators or the secretary that were needed for the summer program.

And with instructors manning the computer labs as class facilitators, administrators won't have to hunt for teachers in specific content areas, a task that often required hiring out-of-county educators because it was so difficult to find teachers willing to give up their summer.

Best of all, according to Gregory Eckles, the district's director of high schools, students will be able to take nearly any course they need to make up. Summer school classes typically required at least 10 students enrolled.

"We dropped a lot of kids by the wayside because they needed something we couldn't offer," Eckles said. "They then had to take it the next year, which is a shame. It puts them behind because they can't take the next class, especially with sequenced classes, like math, and that just pushes them farther and farther down."

At the computer lab outside Westminster, the students studying two dozen courses, from consumer math and earth science to American history and geometry, are certain that online classes will lessen the dreadfulness of summer school.

"In regular school, sometimes it's rushed and sometimes it's too slow," said Heather Janocha, a 15-year-old sophomore from North Carroll High School. "Here, if you're really smart, you can go faster."

"And if you're not really smart," Kelly Criss added, "you don't have to go as fast. You don't move on until you comprehend what you're working on, so you have to learn it."

The courses begin with students taking a computerized assessment. A software program pinpoints exactly what units of a class students did not learn en route to earning a failing grade and tailors an online lesson plan based on the results.

Rather than sitting through the entire course again - as students must do in traditional summer school - the online software lets students retake only the units they flunked.


"These students have been through the course, the actual entire course," said Amy Day, who taught English and schooled bed-ridden students before taking on Carroll's distance-learning lab in February 1999. "To send them through the entire course again for some can be quite monotonous."

Each course has a 300-page online textbook, homework assignments, quizzes, tests, and midterm and final exams. Teachers hand-grade essay questions, but everything else is graded and returned within minutes by the software program.

Beginning in the fall, teachers will use the same summer school computer labs for students to retake failed courses before and after school.

"We're putting our toe in the water with online courses," Eckles said, "and we'll see where things go."

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