Administrators LEAD & MANAGE MY SCHOOL
Innovations in Education: Connecting Students to Advanced Courses Online
December 2007
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Recruiting and Readying Students for Advanced Courses

For students, the quality and effectiveness of the online learning experience depends not just on the courses themselves and the quality of instruction, but also on how smoothly the overall online learning program is implemented at their school site and whether they receive needed preparation and support.

Recruiting Students for Advanced Course Work

Building awareness about the availability of advanced courses is a chief responsibility of a district's or school's site coordinator. While some students are naturally drawn to advanced course work when they hear about it, others may need encouragement from their parents or counselors. Thus, there is a need to inform these two groups as well about online opportunities for their students.

Provider role. Online providers support recruitment by first making sure districts and schools fully understand online learning and how such courses can benefit students. To do this, FLVS leaders, for example, employ a group of three regionally based public affairs liaisons who visit Florida community organizations and faithbased groups. Additionally, there are four regionally based external school counselors who visit districts and schools to inform them about FLVS courses. Similarly, MVS employs part-time regional "ambassadors" who each spend 15–20 hours a week giving presentations to nonparticipating schools and keeping in touch with member schools. VHS staff work directly with school decision-makers (e.g., superintendents, principals, curriculum coordinators, department heads, teachers) to describe the educational benefits of online courses, highlighting VHS's AP exam participation and passing rates. IOAPA works through an existing network of coordinators for districts' gifted-and-talented programs. As a group, these individuals are well situated to recruit students to online learning because they work in multiple grade levels, work across school buildings, and understand the needs of high-ability students.

Providers also supply partner districts and schools with brochures, online demonstrations, readiness assessments, and other recruitment tools. CTY, for example, has developed direct mail and marketing materials (e.g., brochures, flyers, letters) for its partners to use. Because it only accepts students who meet its standards for being gifted and talented, CTY also provides its partners with a guide that delineates those standards, thus assisting counselors and district leaders with the talent search process.

Some online providers also try to connect directly with students and their parents to increase awareness of the online option. For example, CTY staff carry out recruitment activities through churches, synagogues, other family-centered organizations, and hospitals— anywhere school-age children and their parents are likely to be connected.

District or school role. Districts' and schools' general recruitment efforts for online students range from the broad to the increasingly specific. One Iowa school, for example, simply integrates available IOAPA courses into its annual course catalog. One Michigan school has guidance counselors visit classrooms at the beginning and end of each semester to talk about and explain the benefits of online courses. And the site coordinator at one Massachusetts school sends letters to sophomores who, left to their own devices, would not likely sign up or be ready for an AP course. The letter encourages them to take a pre-AP calculus course online. Most recently, the letter was sent to 50 students and yielded 25 enrollments.

Reaching Disadvantaged Students

A number of the providers featured in this guide make special efforts to recruit students who would be considered least likely to seek or have access to advanced course work. In this category are students who attend rural schools, small schools, or schools primarily serving low-income families; many of these schools simply do not have the resources to offer advanced courses. Also in this category are students whose schools may already offer advanced content classes but where limited course capacity has resulted in either explicit or unstated rules about who is and is not "qualified" to take such courses. Most likely left out are students who do not have a sterling academic record across the board (though they may be strong in one or more areas), who are off track in the sequencing of courses, or who for other reasons are not considered good candidates for college prep courses. Even if there is room in advanced classes, some students opt out on their own because they do not see college as a viable alternative in their own future and have not been told otherwise by the adults at their school or elsewhere. Such students are likely to come from families that do not have a history of going to college, or even graduating from high school.

In partnership with districts and schools, committed online course providers can help close these access gaps. In Florida, FLVS's interest in increasing participation by students from disadvantaged backgrounds has been reinforced by the state legislature, which has imposed some recruitment and acceptance priorities (e.g., giving priority to students who attend low-performing schools or are disadvantaged, as defined by NCLB and the state of Florida). This provider has implemented a diversity initiative that directs staff to work through community- and faith-based agencies to actively recruit both minority students and students from low-income areas. During the 2006– 07 school year, FLVS's five public affairs liaisons made contacts at more than 1,000 new venues within the community, which resulted in more Web site visits by potential new students than in previous years. FLVS also runs ads in school newspapers and hopes to broadcast public service announcements in the future. Recognizing that some courses will be oversubscribed and unable to immediately serve all students who apply, this provider has developed a weighted enrollment system that gives priority to minority students, students in rural or low-performing schools, those who are hospital- or home-bound, and seniors for whom just one online course will allow them to graduate.

Such efforts pay off. Starting in 1998, with funding from Goldman Sachs, CTY initiated an outreach program for Hispanic, African-American, and Native American students, increasing its staffing in minority communities and being more aggressive in its outreach. As a result, CTY increased minority enrollment from less than 3 percent in 1998 to 14 percent in 2005.

To support participation by rural students, whose schools typically are less likely to offer advanced course work, IOAPA has sought and received federal funding from the Iowa Department of Education, which received Advanced Placement Incentive Program grant funds and directed some of that funding to IOAPA. The money has been used for a variety of activities (e.g., funding course tuition, mentor stipends) at schools in which 40 percent or more of students are considered low-income.

In addition to this type of targeted outreach work by online providers, districts and schools have an important role to play in broadening the numbers and types of students who are encouraged or specifically invited to sign up for online advanced course work. Some districts researched for this guide have taken the lead by asking their middle school teachers to carefully consider who among their students might do well in advanced high school courses with appropriate preparation and support. Districts can ask the same thing of high school teachers and counselors. Either way, staff should be asked to "think outside the box," expanding their student identification efforts beyond just the obvious choices (e.g., proven selfstarters with strong grades). Rather than starting from student grades or a profile of the hypothetical perfect student for online advanced learning, they will want to look carefully at the learning strengths, challenges, interests, and circumstances of individual students. For example, a student with learning disabilities may perform very poorly in one content area, such as language arts, while performing very well in other areas, such as mathematics and science. While the low grades in language arts result in a lower overall grade point average and may keep the student off the honor roll, he or she may be an ideal candidate for advanced course work in math or science. Similarly, a somewhat disengaged, but technology-savvy student who, to date, has been performing only adequately may become an enthusiastic and successful learner in an online environment due to his or her interest in technology. And what about the student who earned high grades in middle school but fell apart during the first year of high school due to significant family problems, failing a core course? With the family problems resolved and with encouragement to make up the failed course during summer school (or online), this student might make great headway in advanced online courses.

Finally, no matter what teachers and counselors do to identify and recruit candidates for advanced online courses, school leaders at both middle and high schools also must remain focused on ensuring that all students master the knowledge and skills needed to score proficient or above on statewide assessments required by NCLB. To the extent that students can do so, they will be better prepared for taking advanced course work, whether online or off-line.

Alerting Students to New Expectations

All of the course providers highlighted in this guide recognize the importance of making sure students who decide to take an advanced course online understand what is involved and what will be expected of them. This is especially important for students like Zoe, in the vignette on page 38, who, because they have never taken either an advanced course or an online course, face the double challenge of adjusting to the increased demands of advanced content at the same time they adjust to a new learning environment and tools. Programs want students to have reflected on their own learning strengths and challenges prior to starting a course, the idea being that such self-reflection is itself an asset for any student in any learning experience. To this end, the programs provide site coordinators with surveys and other tools to use as conversation starters with interested students. Both FLVS's student survey, Is Online Learning for Me, 36 and COL's Is Online Learning Right for Me, 37 ask students to rate their attitudes toward learning and include questions about working independently, being proactive in their studies, using the Internet as a means of communication, their responsiveness to e-mails, and their access to technology at home. FLVS believes that with enough support any student can be successful in online learning; however, using a student's responses to the survey as a conversation starter helps prepare the student for possible challenges he or she may face in the online environment and gives both site staff and FLVS an understanding of how much support the student may need in order to succeed.

FLVS's online course expectations and the skills it considers important for student success are posted on its Web site and also are communicated by each district's or school's site coordinator during preenrollment counseling for students. Even so, once students are enrolled, online instructors like Zoe's reiterate these things in a "welcome call" prior to the beginning of the course. Parents and students can prepare for the call (e.g., know what questions to ask) by viewing an online video, "Preparing for the Welcome Call" (see fig. 4). During the call, the instructor is on the phone with the student and his or her parent(s), and all of them also may be online. The instructor talks the student and parents through the course Web site to help them understand how to log in, navigate the course, and post completed assignments. The instructor also shares tips for online success, such as staying on pace, reaching out when students need help, checking e-mail frequently, and carefully reading the instructor's comments.

Managing Student Expectations and Monitoring Student Progress

Zoe, a junior at a large urban school district, is the oldest of five siblings in a minority family. Her parents hope she will be the first in their family to attend college and set a positive example for her younger brothers and sisters. Zoe knows she will have to compete for college scholarships and is highly motivated to go above and beyond her high school graduation requirements. After filling her schedule with the required core courses, she realized her AP English literature course and orchestra period conflicted with the honors algebra II course she was hoping to take.

Zoe recalled her guidance counselor mentioning online course options during her orientation. She made an appointment with the counselor to learn what would be involved in taking an online course. After hearing more about it, she decided to enroll in an online honors algebra II course, which she could take during an independent study period. Zoe was excited, remembering a brochure from the program that showed a young girl saying how the online course experience had helped prepare her for college.

The week before her honors course was to begin, the online instructor called Zoe at home to speak with both her and her parents about specific course expectations and about the logistics of how the course would operate. Zoe had already gone over the online learning expectations with her guidance counselor but felt that hearing the specific course expectations from her instructor was very helpful. At the parents' request, the instructor also reviewed his own online learning and mathematics credentials to help assure them that Zoe would receive high-quality instruction. Once the course started, the instructor continued to contact her parents on a monthly basis to discuss their daughter's progress.

Currently, Zoe spends her independent study period at school logged into her online algebra II course. At home, in addition to completing homework for other courses, she may spend another 45 minutes online before she goes to bed, and she generally works from two to three hours online each weekend. If she does well in this algebra II course, she plans to ask her guidance counselor about enrolling in the online AP calculus course for her senior year.

Students who are interested in taking advanced courses (e.g., AP, honors) are vetted specifically for whether they are ready for the more challenging content. Past performance may be one indicator of readiness. But many staff interviewed for this guide look at a variety of other indicators. At one Colorado school, for example, the COL site coordinator requires students to submit a teacher recommendation and, also, to write an essay addressing how he or she plans to be successful in the course. IOAPA encourages site coordinators who are trying to determine if a student is ready for advanced courses to go to its Web site to read Profile of Success for Students Taking AP Courses Via Web. 38 Some of the traits that IOAPA considers to be common in high-achieving students are an enjoyment for being challenged, a tendency to assume significant responsibility for their own progress, a tendency to ask questions and seek out answers as needed, and an ability to appropriately prioritize their activities. The programs also ask site coordinators to gauge student readiness for online AP courses by using AP pretests. Generally speaking, if a student scores less than an 80 percent on the pretest, he or she is not considered ready for an AP course. At one Iowa high school, the site coordinator requires that students successfully complete algebra II before enrolling in an AP math course; the counselor then discusses with the AP teacher the student's level of success in the prerequisite course. If a student is not considered academically prepared for the advanced course, he or she is counseled away from the AP course, perhaps into an honors course instead.

Figure 4. Screen Shot From Florida Virtual School's Online "Welcome Call" Video That Gives Parents a Heads-up About What to Expect From the Call
Screen Shot From Florida Virtual School's Online Video That Gives Parents a Heads-up About What to Expect From the Call

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Last Modified: 10/05/2009