Webcast: Virtual school helps at-risk students succeed

Online instruction has helped several at-risk Illinois students finish their high school education and earn their diploma, when it’s likely many of these students otherwise would have dropped out of the system, said Sarah Antrim-Cambium, the Illinois Virtual High School (IVHS) coordinator for participating schools in Cook County.

Antrim-Cambium was speaking at a Dec. 14 webcast sponsored by the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL). The purpose of the event was to highlight how virtual schooling can be used to reach students who are at risk of failing or of dropping out of the traditional school system.

But it’s not just at-risk students who are being served in Illinois. Online instruction also is helping more than 3,000 traditional students in the state fulfill certain requirements and expand their access to specialized classes, Antrim-Cambium said.

Offering approved online courses, and putting the appropriate support system in place, gives students the opportunity to take advanced classes, meet graduation requirements, and enroll in classes their regular schools might not offer, she said.

IVHS introduced its first courses in January 2001 and had 100 enrollments. That number quickly jumped to nearly 3,300 for the 2004-2005 school year. Around 70 percent of Illinois high schools have signed up to participate in IVHS. The program is funded through a grant from the Illinois State Board of Education and through course tuition.

The school is a supplemental statewide program serving all Illinois students and works in partnership with the state’s high schools. When a student enrolls in IVHS, that student’s school issues credit for the course taken. Participation is voluntary for each district. Courses are a semester long, and no more than 25 students are enrolled in any given online class. IVHS staff build courses, grade work, and are available online through web conferencing.

When IVHS first opened enrollment, Antrim-Cambium said, some high schools saw the online service as a threat that might take away jobs and students. Now, though, that feeling is less common, she said, as more schools view IVHS as an enhancement or an advantage.

Some IVHS teachers teach in traditional classrooms and teach only one course, and others are retired from public education and teach in a more full-time capacity.

One IVHS program reached beyond the typical virtual high school class and attempted to help at-risk students complete their education. The Graduation Recovery and Aptitude Development (eGRAD) program’s students faced a variety of challenges: Some were fifth-year seniors, others were being released from incarceration, some were pregnant or parenting, others worked full-time, and still others experienced displacement and transportation issues, Antrim-Cambium said.

Of eGRAD’s first 10 students, nine stayed in the program and completed it.

“We have this tremendous potential in online education, and I’m sure our 35 eGRAD success stories are only the beginning,” Antrim-Cambium said.

While Antrim-Cambium said the eGRAD program was discontinued because of a lack of funding from the state, she added that she just received notice of a new program similar to eGRAD that will be launching in Illinois soon.

“I just received an eMail yesterday, and I saw a large number of students that we might be able to reach,” she said. “I have high hopes that some of the lessons we learned with the eGRAD program will prove valuable in [helping us] do an even better job with these students in an even better program.”

Antrim-Cambium said IVHS is not doing any kind of program with the state’s juvenile justice system, but said she would welcome the opportunity.

“That is something that I would love very much to push for,” she said.

IVHS does work with a school that is part of that juvenile justice system, and though all the school’s students are incarcerated, all receive A’s and B’s in their classes, Antrim-Cambium said.

“I had a very unfortunate circumstance in which one young man was transferred from that facility to another place without access to the [virtual] school, and that student was really promising in algebra, and we advocated for him to continue classes even as a pilot program, but to no avail,” she said. “Any way we can help those students finish their high school careers is of the utmost importance.”

To overcome some obvious obstacles that online-only education presents, IVHS tries to offer a solid communication cycle involving the student, his or her parents, the school, and a mentor. Because most eGRAD students were adults, that communication cycle included the student, a mentor, and the instructor.

All virtual-school students, whether enrolled in IVHS or an eGRAD-like program, benefit from mentoring, Antrim-Cambium said. Mentoring is key in helping students want to continue with their online education, she added.

“If you get a quality mentor, you see a high student success rate,” Antrim-Cambium said. “As teachers, we can phone and eMail students, but the mentor can be a physical presence, and that contact can get students into the classroom and continue to keep them motivated.”

To keep classes structured and serious, IVHS follows a proven success model. Holding classes during the regular school day, setting up a dedicated computer lab for IVHS participation in each school, and having a trained mentor who is also a certified teacher available during the school day helps keep students focused. Mandatory attendance and participation agreements also help the classes remain regimented, Antrim-Cambium said.

The Dec. 14 webcast was one of a series of monthly events aimed at sharing best practices, learning from successes in the field, and helping to expand and advocate for high-quality online learning programs, said Susan Patrick, director of NACOL. Before joining NACOL, Patrick was the director of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education.

NACOL “webinars” occur on the third Wednesday of every month. The Jan. 18 webinar will address how to use existing, third-party digital content for online instruction, Patrick said.

IVHS is one of 21 statewide virtual school programs nationwide, and more than 30 states have policies and programs addressing online learning for K-12 students, she said.

The Dec. 14 webinar was produced with help from online learning company Elluminate Inc.


North American Council for Online Learning

Illinois Virtual High School

Illinois State Board of Education


Laura Ascione
Latest posts by Laura Ascione (see all)

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at submissions@eschoolmedia.com.