Morgan Tighe loves computers.
So when Dunlap High School offered her the choice of taking U.S. History in a traditional classroom or in a class that mixed in-school and online work, there was no question what she’d pick.
“I thought I’d enjoy learning that way, and it was a chance to try it before college,” said Tighe, now a freshman at Illinois Central College studying computer information systems.
With a growing number of colleges offering or requiring online courses, several area high schools are providing more virtual options to prepare students while offering a broader curriculum.
Three years ago, Dunlap started offering alternative versions of some courses. At first, students are at their desks five days a week, but they gradually cut in-class time to two days a week, working online the other three days.
“We wanted a model that reflects where they are as high school students, but prepares them for expectations they’ll run into later,” said Principal Tom Welsh.
For Tighe, the extra hour of sleep during online days was a bonus.
Others schools have partnered with Illinois Virtual School to offer online classes. Students don’t get Dunlap’s gradual transition to online work, but they have access to more courses than some high schools can offer on their own.
Last year, students at 13 schools in Peoria District 150 and Peoria County took part in 30 courses. Some students may have taken more than one course, but out of 107 enrollments, 93 percent of students who were still enrolled after two weeks completed and passed the class, Illinois Virtual School director Cindy Hamblin said.
Michael Bledsoe, a freshman at Johns Hopkins University who plans to study medicine, took a yearlong biotechnology course and two semesters of Latin as a senior at Elmwood High School.
“I liked being able to go at my own pace. I felt like I was able to accomplish a lot more in less time than I’ve been able to in other classes,” Bledsoe said. His brother Matthew, a senior, also studied biotechnology and plans to take Advanced Placement Calculus this year.
Rusty Koll supervises students in online classes at Elmwood. They get a free period for each online course, which they spend working on laptops in Koll’s classroom.
Teachers said most students in online classes are high achievers looking for enrichment, though some have also used them to make up time missed due to illness. Though online classes have teachers, too, students are more responsible for making sure they stay on track and ask for help when they need it.
Students and teachers alike said that highly motivated and organized students are most likely to succeed, and online learning may not work for every high schooler.
“I’ll never say it’s a complete replacement for face-to-face teaching. You just can’t replace a quality teacher,” said Elmwood Superintendent Roger Alvey.
Still, he said he wishes more Elmwood students could enroll online because the school struggles to offer a wide range of classes on its own.
When Elmwood couldn’t find a replacement for a French teacher who retired last year, the district moved the program online. But there’s a limited budget. Koll said Elmwood has set aside funds for about 10 percent of students to take Illinois Virtual School classes, which cost $250 per student per semester class.
Alvey expects that someday the state will make taking at least one online class a high school graduation requirement. Florida already has.
Hamblin said Illinois is behind states such as Florida that are leaders in online education. Of the 28 states with state-run virtual schools, Illinois has the second-smallest enrollment as a percentage of the high school age population and few other online options, according to Keeping Pace 2012, a report about online education by the Evergreen Education consulting group.
It’s even less common in middle schools, Hamblin said, though St. Philomena School in Peoria uses Illinois Virtual School for middle school students who are ready for high school-level geometry and algebra.
“Colleges are becoming more distance-based, and even in traditional classes, students are going to need to know how to learn from online materials,” Koll said. “We’re giving them the skills they’re going to need if they continue their education past high school.
Lauren Zumbach can be reached at 686-3194 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @laurenzumbach.