At-risk students are receiving special support and counseling via the internet, thanks to a pilot program recently launched by the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE). The program, called Project Turn Around, uses internet connections, computers, scanners, printers, digital cameras, and other technology to pair troubled teens with academic coaches and professional counselors for one-on-one mentoring.

Project Turn Around is being tested at Riviera Village Community School, an alternative public school in Redondo Beach, Calif. The school serves students who have been expelled from other county schools, who are on probation, or who otherwise have trouble in traditional academic settings. The students spend one or two semesters at Riviera Village, where they complete a rehabilitation program before they are returned to the regular school system.

The project, an enhancement to classroom instruction, is a unique combination of distance learning, tutoring, and professional counseling provided by the Santa Monica, Calif., company Progressive Learning, with support from Epson America Inc. Progressive Learning arranges for academic coaches to work with the students over the internet. Epson supports the program with donated technology.

“Traditionally, inner-city schools have gotten the worst of everything,” said Ralph Fagen, founder and executive director of Progressive Learning. “This program has been designed to give these kids the best of everything–the best technology resources, as well as the best human resources. These kids really are the ones who have the most critical needs.”

How the program works

Students spend an hour each day online with their personal academic coach. The coaches are hand-picked by Progressive Learning from a pool of experienced teachers and exceptional motivators and are matched with students according to their areas of interest.

Coaches work with the students to reinforce and supplement the regular classroom instruction. They also act as mentors.

“These kids need the extra attention,” said Nancy Fernas-Reynolds, the program’s teacher. “They do so much better with the one-on-one.” With up to 25 students at a time, Fernas-Reynolds explained, she can’t give students the individual attention they get from their online coaches.

In addition to academic coaches, Progressive Learning also sets students up with “career mentors.” For example, Fagen said, students who show an interest in computers might be paired online with computer science professionals who can help them prepare for careers in the field.

Project Turn Around also uses technology-enhanced art therapy to connect with the students. Using the digital cameras and scanners, students create visual arts projects they can perfect using image-editing software. The students exchange their projects via the internet with art therapists hundreds of miles away.

“Many of these students have trouble expressing themselves verbally, “Fernas-Reynolds said, “but the art projects let them express their emotions through visual methods, opening up a whole new way of communicating for them.”

Online counseling is something the school will continue to expand, said David Flores, director of LACOE’s Division of Alternative Education.

“The reason these kids get into trouble is they don’t have the support and guidance at home,” Flores said. One challenge the county will have to address, though, is safeguarding students’ confidentiality as they are being counseled online, Flores said.

Early indications of success

The project’s impact will be evaluated through an independent study by a University of Southern California professor next year [[1999 or 2000?]]. After just six weeks, though, it appears to be having success.

Pre- and post-program testing reveals a 29-percent jump in students’ abilities among core subject areas since the project began, Fagen said.

Attendance has improved as well, Fernas-Reynolds said. “The students feel a real link with the program and their mentors,” she said. “It’s such a motivation for them.”

Los Angeles County Office of Education

Progressive Learning

Epson America Inc.