• Online schools allow students flexibility to continue their education and pursue career goals.
• Online schools remain a small piece of California’s education community.
• Different curricula are offered in California’s online schools programs.
The Delsid family calls Kingsburg home, but it’s really more a base of operations as they deliver their children to dance classes in Clovis, martial arts training in Visalia and acting classes and auditions in Southern California.
When their children’s manager calls from Los Angeles with an audition opportunity — no matter which day — they dash off. So it’s not surprising to find daughter Jalene in the back seat of the family sport-utility vehicle immersed in a school lesson.
“She can do a live lesson on the road,” said her mother, Crystal Delsid. “I plug in our phone as a hot spot and she can do school work from her laptop. Her teacher never even knows we’re on the (Highway) 99.”
Online school lets the Delsids help their three older children realize their dreams. All three attend school through California Connections Academy @ Central, which covers about half of California’s counties.
Students can enroll in online schools when an authorizing district is in their county or a bordering one. In the Delsids’ case, California Connections Academy @ Central is chartered through Alpaugh Unified School District in Tulare County. They pay nothing to attend because the state’s daily attendance money is funneled through Alpaugh — which gets a small cut for administrative costs — and then to California Connections Academy @ Central, which has a Visalia office.
For the Delsids, online school enables their children’s pursuit of sports and acting fame. Others opt for online schools because they have medical issues, can’t cope in a brick-and-mortar school, want to push ahead or have fallen behind in their education. And, online schools also create new jobs for teachers.
Without online school, the Delsid children — James, 16, Jalene, 9, and Jazlyn, 5 — would miss opportunities to move ahead with their athletic, acting and dancing pursuits. The family garage has been converted to a dance/martial arts studio by their father, James Sr.
“Five to seven days a week we’ve been booked,” said Crystal, a real estate agent. “Sometimes we only have evenings and weekends for homework.”
James has improved academically at online school. A high school sophomore, he admits his grades suffered at the start of the academic year at Kingsburg High because of too many distractions.
“I started here and I had no distractions at all,” he said. “I woke up this morning at 7 a.m. and did my homework until 11.”
Father James Delsid Sr., who owns a trucking company, said he wants his children to live their dreams.
“Every day is like a holiday because I’m with my family,” he said. “If they were in regular school they could only practice part time.”
Online school also was the answer for Celina Aranda, 18, of Fresno, who said she left Clovis North because she was being bullied. The former cheerleader had a bout with an eating disorder that made her the target of friends and other students. She continued struggling with the eating disorder and went for therapy in San Diego for two months. But when she returned, school still stressed her out.
“I was going to school more worried about situations and dirty looks than I was about school,” Celina said.
Last year as Celina’s father, Angel Aranda, dropped her off at school, she told him she didn’t want to return.
Celina didn’t belong in continuation school because her grades were solid, and Angel Aranda had doubts about online school, even after Clovis Online School was suggested.
“I wasn’t sure how much she’d get out of it,” he said.
But, after observing her doing schoolwork at home, “she was relaxing,” he said.
“She knew better for herself,” Angel Aranda said. “It was the best decision we ever made. I didn’t know if she could be disciplined (enough for online schooling), but she gets up and does it ... and we’ve been getting the support we needed.”
Celina, who will graduate on time in the spring, said she adjusted quickly. If she doesn’t understand material, she can replay a video lesson. If she needs more support, she can call or meet with a teacher. She goes to school in the morning and is weaning herself back into a school setting, taking a photo class and cheerleading at Fresno City College a couple days each week.
“It’s pushing me to meet new people and make friends with kids from different (high) schools,” Celina said.
At Fresno City, she sees other young women from different backgrounds with challenges she doesn’t have to worry about, and it’s made her appreciate her own life.
“Learning about other people’s situations (from all over Fresno) makes me feel thankful for mine,” she said.
Not for everyone
Online schools are beginning to build a niche, but they will probably never have more than 10% of California’s student population, said Rob Darrow, a Santa Cruz-based online education consultant and former Clovis Online School principal. But in the future, he predicts, all students will take at least one online class in high school.
And, he said, there are enough students in California — 6.2 million — for online schools to serve tens of thousands of California elementary and high school students.
Just as online school will not work for every student, online schools aren’t right for every district. Those that do delve into online usually partner with privately run online schools. The majority are free to students, whose costs are covered by state average daily attendance money.
The Visalia branch of California Connections Academy @ Central grew by about 50 students from last year to 350. It gets nearly half its students from Kern County and about a quarter each from Fresno and Tulare counties. California Connections’ live lessons can be taught to a handful of students or 50 anywhere in the state, and teachers can work from home, administrator Yolanda Flores said.
“As our culture changes and the needs exist for students to have flexibility, we will continue to grow,” she said.
Alpaugh Unified has formed an alliance with California Connections Academy @ Central, Superintendent Rob Hudson said. The 300-student district in southwestern Tulare County started in the online education world in 2006 “when nobody was really interested in it.”
In exchange for oversight of the online school’s paperwork and budget, Alpaugh Unified gets a 1% cut of average daily attendance dollars that flow to the online school, about $35,000 annually. It’s not much money, considering the district’s $3.1 million budget, but there are side benefits, Hudson said.
Connections Academy gives Alpaugh access to technology, programs used to help expelled students or those needing help with classes they failed or didn’t complete.
“Connections really gives us a window into another world we ordinarily wouldn’t get,” Hudson said. “They do some really good programs and they provide training for us.”
Staying in house
While most districts link up in public-private partnerships, Clovis Unified operates its own online school. After the district began Clovis Online School nearly seven years ago, it went through some early fits and starts. Clovis Online School now has about 350 students — after peaking at 450 — nearly all from the Fresno area. Students are eligible to attend Clovis Online School if they live in a county that borders Fresno County.
Kevin Cookingham, Clovis Online School administrator, said Clovis Online School is becoming more selective about enrolling students to ensure that they are able to meet the rigorous workload from Edgenuity, the company that provides the video-based curriculum. Teachers in the program are paid by Clovis Unified and the students are counted in the district’s average daily attendance.
Clovis Online School learned the hard way, said Mike Paustian, the learning director. The school took dozens of students from other districts and then had high dropout rates, 50% in 2010-11. But, over time, he said, older students were funneled to adult school, where the requirements are not as rigorous once they turn 18, and even fewer credits are needed after they turn 19. Last year, Clovis Online’s dropout rate was 13%.
Paustian said many older students won’t immediately go to four-year schools or were seeking only a high school diploma, so Clovis Online could funnel them to settings where it was easier to reach those goals.
School districts from across the state are visiting Clovis, trying to learn the type of commitment needed to create a similar online school program.
One of Clovis Online School’s recent observers was Brad Seiple, who was among a group from Palm Springs Unified School District.
The Cathedral City High School assistant principal said he was impressed by Clovis Unified’s commitment to online learning and was interested in the way the Edgenuity curriculum was employed.
“They are doing some really neat things with their online program by allowing kids flexibility,” he said. “We are looking at ways to meet kids’ needs and sometimes we’re the ones who need to be flexible.”
Teacher is watching
Keeping students on track for graduation is serious business for Clovis Online School, Paustian said.
Teacher Sue Whitsitt uses online software to observe her students. On a recent afternoon, the software showed that most of her students had worked several hours, but one stood out.
“We’re going to have to call the house,” she said, looking down at the zero hours posted.
Whitsitt, one of about 20 teachers at Clovis Online, said the software developed by Arizona-based Edgenuity isn’t easily fooled. It counts a student’s key strokes and monitors all work activity, and test scores are posted for her and the students’ parents.
“I can see how many minutes and hours they’ve spent, how many activities they’ve done,” she said. “I can see if a student logged in. They just can’t go in, turn it on and go off to play video games.”
Whitsitt also checks in with her students using Google Hangout, a video chat online service, to ask whether they need help. On average, she said, a student should be online 25 to 30 hours a week for school.
Whitsitt goes to work at Clovis Online offices every day. Students could come in for visits or testing, but almost all of her work is done at a desk at her computer, not in front of students.
Because teachers are there every day, students feel more of a personal connection. The district surveyed online students and found that 90% of Clovis Online students felt the personal interaction was better than a regular classroom, Paustian said.
“In a classroom, some of them felt like they fell through the cracks,” he said. “It’s a little harder to fall through the cracks here.”