All posts by Diana Lambert

Elk Grove Unified to open a virtual school

Kristin Allen, a junior at Valley High, studies Algebra II in a computer lab. This fall, the Elk Grove school district will have a virtual school up and running: Students will receive their online course work at home.

This August a few hundred students in the Elk Grove Unified School District will have their school year delivered to their doorstep in a giant UPS box.

The K-12 students will be part of the district’s first-ever virtual school.

The box will contain grade-specific supplies – books, globes, maps – that students will need to finish a year of school from home.

Virtual schooling is gaining traction among California school districts looking for ways to increase revenue and decrease spending.

The cyber school could help the district bring back students who have left to attend charter or private schools, and could draw students from other districts, said Anne Zeman, director of curriculum and professional learning for the district. And with those additional students will come additional state funding.

Elk Grove will pay K12, the company that provides the instruction plans and materials, 85 to 90 percent of the $5,219 the district receives from the state for each student, Zeman said.

She said the district may not make any money on the endeavor, but she’s certain it won’t cost any more than it brings in. “We can’t afford to embark on a program that is a new expense,” she said.

Unlike continuation programs or some charter schools that cater to students who struggle with a traditional classroom environment, Zeman said, the Elk Grove virtual school will be for students of all academic levels.

It will be “no piece of cake” academically, she said. The materials provided by K12 for the program have been reviewed by staff to ensure they are on par with the curriculum taught at district schools.

Students in the virtual program will learn most of their lessons on a computer at home. They’ll go to a real campus for tests and to meet from time to time with a teacher.

Sacramento City Unified leaders have selected a task force to study the possibility of a virtual school in that district, said Mary Shelton, acting chief academic officer.

“We’re looking at a model that pulls in students from outside our district,” she said. “That’s how you increase your ADA (average daily attendance).”

Sacramento City and Elk Grove officials say money isn’t the only reason they are pursuing online programs.

“Our primary goal is to maintain the reputation and integrity of our district by providing the best education possible for our students,” Zeman said. “We’re looking for parents to take another look.”

Most local districts still are just dipping their toes into the virtual education pool, blending online learning with class time.

In the Twin Rivers Unified School District, high school students can take a biology class that combines lessons from teachers with online labs and collaboration with peers, said Sarah DiRuscio, director of Educational Technology-Secondary Education.

The Folsom Cordova Unified School District offers online courses in English 3 for high school students and geometry for middle and high school students. The students meet online to discuss class work and are proctored on tests.

Many districts offer online courses for students trying to make up classes to graduate. These programs have become more popular lately, as school districts have shuttered summer schools and after-school programs.

Elk Grove Unified started offering supplemental online classes for credit-deficient juniors and seniors this year.

Junior Kristin Allen was in the computer lab Thursday at Valley High School taking an online Algebra II class after school. She had received a D in the class previously. She said she was trying to stay on track so she can apply to universities this spring.

But is online learning a good alternative?

“It depends,” said Cynthia Carter Ching, an associate professor with the School of Education at UC Davis.

“Students who are self-motivated do fine in these types of environments, but those who need more help are not going to get that sort of social reinforcement support structure,” she said.

She said parents of virtual students need to be involved and should monitor them to make sure they aren’t goofing off online.

“I think that, as a parent, before you make a decision about online school, you have to know your child and know what you are capable of,” Ching said.

She also said students need to interact with teachers and peers.

“You don’t want to have a situation where you have a third-grader uploading and downloading assignments with very little interaction with teachers and peers,” Ching said.

She recommends that school districts go with online schools that let students interact with one another online, instead of working in solitude.

Regardless of the method, online learning is appealing to more and more students. Sacramento City’s Shelton attributes the increased popularity to students’ familiarity with technology.

“I think it’s the shape of things to come as we see more and more college courses online,” Shelton said. “I think it’s finally moving down to the secondary level. It is something our students are comfortable with and demand.”

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Educators look at using cell phones as teaching tools

Students in Joe Wood’s science class at Somerset Middle School in Modesto didn’t have to hide their cell phones in their backpacks. They used them to take quizzes, shoot photos for class projects and create podcasts.

Wood has since been hired as an instructional technologist for the San Juan Unified School District. He is among a growing group of educators who consider cell phones an important tool in the classroom.

“Let’s help them learn the way they want to,” said Joe Jenkins, chief technology officer at Natomas Unified School District. “They want to use cell phones. They want to text. … They respond to it.”

Jenkins recently received instructional software for cell phones. If it passes muster, he will pilot it in a class for a year before district officials decide whether to make it part of the curriculum.

Despite Wood’s enthusiasm for cell phones in the classrooms, San Juan doesn’t have a program. “We’ve been focused on other initiatives,” Wood said. “Down the road we may be teaching teachers how to leverage technology.”

But many teachers across the nation are already using cell phones for learning. A Spanish teacher in Wisconsin gives oral quizzes via cell phone. Another in Michigan has students take photos with their phones on field trips for an interactive scavenger hunt, while another in Pennsylvania asks his students to use theirs to chronicle their use of calculus in everyday life, said Liz Kolb, an educator and the author of “Toys to Tools: Connecting Student Cell Phones to Education.”

She calls cell phones the “Swiss Army knife of education,” because they can be used inside or outside the classroom. She said their use in class allows students to make the connection between learning and everyday life.

Proponents of cell phones in the classroom say they are battling years of negativity. Historically, educators have thought phones should be banned or confiscated. Most schools have policies forbidding their use on school property.

“I’m finding when I talk to teachers about this, they say ‘Don’t put me in the book. I’m kind of doing it underground. My principal doesn’t know.’ ” Kolb said.

But many districts are amending policies to allow cell phones on campus, if only for instructional use.

“We need to get away from this mentality of taking it (phones) away because it’s a nuisance,” Jenkins said.

Cell phones today really are mini-computers, Wood said. They have the same amount of power that a computer had 10 years ago.

Education periodicals, Web sites and blogs are filled with discussion about the use of cell phones in the classroom. The National Education Computer Conference, held in Washington, D.C., in June, included 13 sections of a workshop on the topic, Wood said. The previous year’s conference held only one such class, he said.

“The big buzz of the conference, was ‘How do you leverage cell phones for learning?’ ” Wood said. “Ultimately, in education, we want to know ‘How do I get my students to learn?’ “

Chai-Jung Chung, assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education at California State University, Sacramento, said that using cell phones in the classroom can change a student’s view of learning. She and other educators believe the use of phones will encourage students to continue learning outside of school.

“There are learning opportunities everywhere with cell phones,” she said. “They can take a picture while doing something outside of school and put it into a project.”

Cell phones can help students and teachers become more interactive, Wood said. Polling students via cell phone brought 100 percent class participation, compared with about 25 percent when his students were asked questions verbally, he said. The anonymity of sending an answer to a Web site via cell phone helps shy students who worry about the social ramifications of their responses, Kolb said.

The use of cell phones in the classroom can help break down the digital divide, Kolb said. She said studies show that as many low-income and minority students have cell phones as upper-income and white students.

Wood said he was surprised to discover how many of his middle school students in Modesto had phones with data capability. But Internet access is not necessary for learning, Wood said. Teachers can use the camera, text messaging and phone features alone for a multitude of classroom uses.

“You have to look at the limitations of the assortment of tools (in the class),” Wood said.

He acknowledges, however, that the plethora of different phones and operating systems can be problematic.

Jenkins said that if cell phones are incorporated into Natomas curriculum, the district would probably have to purchase class sets to ensure equity.

Michael Flood, a manager for the Sprint communications network, said federal and California state technology programs offer subsidies that could pay most of the cost of operating a cell phone program at schools. Equipment is not included in the subsidy.

He said many districts have been trying to put laptops in the hands of every student, but they’ve found the program expensive and complicated to support.

“More recently what has started to take off are mobile devices and netbooks, which are lower-cost and smaller,” Flood said.

School districts should be thinking about using cell phone technology in their classes, Wood said. “You have all this equipment in your students’ possession,” he said. “How can it be leveraged for learning?”

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Retirements create openings for career tech teachers

Mike Stone oversees Stephanie Shijo as she demonstrates a tree splitter that she and other students manufactured last month in a technology class at Franklin High. Stone, who retired last month after teaching summer school, started teaching auto mechanics 32 years ago.

Mike Stone started teaching auto shop 32 years ago to students he said were more inclined to mechanics than academics.

He spent the last seven years of his career teaching students how to use computer-assisted drafting to construct biodiesel plants, design heavy machinery and build a better beehive in Franklin High School’s engineering program.

He said he watched vocational education evolve from shop classes to an array of career technical education classes including digital media, engineering and medical professions.

The 59-year-old and his colleagues had to develop many programs themselves, learning as they taught.

Now they are retiring.

“It’s a big problem,” said Dennis Guido, administrator for Regional Occupational Programs and work force development for the California Department of Education. “The retirees are going to create a huge void in career technical education nationwide.”

Many of them moved out of industry jobs into teaching in the 1980s and 1990s, he said, and now they’re reaching retirement age.

Stone graduated with a college degree in industrial engineering and worked as an auto mechanic before becoming a teacher.

It’s harder now, Guido said, “to find qualified teachers willing to take a substantial cut in pay to enter the public arena.”

Stone has tried to recruit former students himself for his job in Elk Grove Unified. He retired at the end of June after teaching summer school.

One prospective teacher, a 32-year-old computer assisted drafting specialist, told him she couldn’t afford the pay cut.

Guido said California school districts are working hard to recruit career technical education teachers, who must have five years of work experience and a teaching credential.

Christy Moustris, Elk Grove Unified’s director of alternative education, said that district has set up an internal mentoring program to train career technical teachers.

Stone worked with his replacement, Chris Alburn, for two years. Alburn has a background in construction and had already been teaching math at Franklin High before he became a computer-assisted drafting instructor.

Stone said the transition was far more abrupt when he was tapped in the early 1980s to replace a drafting teacher at Valley High School who left to teach college.

“Monday morning came and I didn’t know how to turn the computer on,” Stone said. “It was the worst year of my teaching career.”

So Stone took college classes at night and taught what he learned to his students the next morning.

In addition to mentoring potential career tech teachers, Moustris said Elk Grove Unified has set up some teachers in summer jobs to qualify them for the work experience they need.

The shortage of these specialized teachers has meant the closure of some of the state’s career technical programs, Guido said. Budget cuts have closed others.

“There are incredible success stories we keep hearing about despite the cuts,” Guido said. “Now we have to scale everything back. It’s very, very frustrating.”

Stone said the courses provide students with 21st century skills.

“It’s highly relevant, highly rigorous,” Stone said.

During one of his summer school classes, Kiana Morioka, who will be a senior next school year, and Maggie Su, a junior, built a better beehive. It incorporated a solar fan and double-panes to cool the hive against global warming.

Stephanie Shijo had identified the need for a log splitter larger than most commercial splitters but smaller then the industrial-sized ones. She designed its parts on a computer and sent them to a machine in the shop that cut them out. She also incorporated a ramp, so the logs don’t have to be lifted manually.

The engineering program is just part of Franklin High’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Media program.

Elk Grove Unified Superintendent Steven Ladd said these programs need a strong curriculum and strong instructors.

Stone closed his shop on the last day of school like other teachers. But he reopened it the next day so students could work on their State Fair projects.

“I opened it at 9 a.m. and the place was full by noon,” Stone said. “I had to say ‘If you’re not working on a fair project, go home.’ “

Nicholas Kolesar, who will be a junior at Franklin High next year, prints out a presentation poster last
month that will be displayed at the State Fair for his suction dredge project for dredging gold.

Stephanie Shijo works uses AutoCad, a computer aided drafting program, for her design plans at Franklin High. The Elk Grove district recently was honored for its high-tech vocation education programs.

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