Ala. school system expands online options

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Starting this fall, middle and high school students in the Tuscaloosa County School System will be able to take classes online.

Through the eGrad program, students who miss school because they've been expelled, suspended or hospitalized can stay up-to-date on their coursework by taking classes online at a virtual learning center. The program also allows students to accelerate their learning by taking additional classes. Others can use the program to immediately re-learn lessons they didn't grasp the first time they were taught.

"I'm so excited about the possibility of implementing an electronic school, basically a virtual learning center," said Elizabeth Swinford, superintendent of the county school system.

"We came up with the idea during second semester last school year. We were looking at the number of students who get expelled and who are on long-term suspensions, and how they are pretty much behind their classmates if they were suspended for one semester. When they come back, even if we give them their work, they still fall behind because they weren't there to listen to the presentations."

With eGrad, if a student gets expelled for a year in 10th grade, he or she will return to school on grade level with his or her classmates in 11th grade, as long as he or she completes all of the necessary coursework online.

Students have to sign into virtual classrooms and complete their work online to get credit for the course. Teachers will monitor students online while they work.

Joe Boteler of the Tuscaloosa County Board of Education said that the board has waited a long time for a program like this.

"This is one of the things that we've been begging for," Boteler said. "We don't want to lose these kids when they make a mistake. We want to pick up the ones that are falling behind."

In addition to helping expelled, suspended and hospitalized students, eGrad will allow students to receive immediate remediation on lessons they're struggling with so they don't fall behind or fail the class and have to retake it in summer school.

"Let's say that a child has difficulty with fractions," Swinford said. "The teacher has to move on. But (instead of the student getting left behind) the child can sit at the computer at home and remediate online virtually. (The program) gives them instruction, practice and then assesses them. Based on how the child performs on that assessment, it teaches again what the child missed, and continuously assesses and moves the child forward.

"That gap doesn't stay there. How can you expect them to multiply, divide and do everything else when they still don't know how to do certain things that were taught before it? They remediate immediately."

Not all students fall behind. Some excel. And the eGrad program was designed to help those students as well.

"We have a lot of kids who are amazing in mathematics," Swinford said. "In the seventh grade we can offer them algebra with eGrad.

"They take a weeklong refresher course of pre-algebra and then take the end-of-course exam. As long as they pass it, we can put them in algebra and we don't have to wait."

Swinford said that if students don't have a computer at home, the system will provide laptop and desktop computers that students can check out like they would a library book. The computers will have the eGrad programs already installed. But if students want to use eGrad on their personal computers, county school officials will allow them to install it.

The eGrad program is an expansion of G.R.A.D. Academy, an alternative school program that was implemented in the county last school year. Swinford said Sprayberry Education Center Principal Neil Guy, who also serves as one of two directors of the G.R.A.D. Academy program, will serve as principal of eGrad.

The technology used in the eGrad program is K12, an AdvancED and SACS accredited technology-based education company that provides curriculum and educational services online for kindergarten through 12th grade students.

The county school system has already used the K12 software for the past five years, but in order to implement eGrad in the way they plan to, the software has to be upgraded to include data from all of the system's middle schools and Sipsey Valley High School, which will cost about $300,000. Swinford said the upgrade will be paid for with remaining temporary 1-cent sales tax funds.

The Tuscaloosa County Board of Education approved eGrad this week, but the program still has to be approved by the Alabama Department of Education before the system can use it.


Information from: The Tuscaloosa News,

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