Law Lifts Online Course Cap in South Carolina High Schools

Students in South Carolina will have more academic choices come fall thanks to a new law signed by Governor Nikki Haley last month. The law, which was approved unanimously in the state House and Senate, lifts the cap on how many online classes each high school student may take over the course of their high school career. According to Seanna Adcox of the Associated Press, previously, only three credit hours per year and 12 total over four years counted towards the state's graduation requirements.

Bradley Mitchell, who heads the up the virtual education program in the state, said that the new law will not only give students more scheduling flexibility, but will also allow them to take more courses that might not be available in their local school district. Initially, the program was designed to offer students who have fallen behind in their studies an opportunity to catch up to their peers without having to pull out of school. Credit recovery continues to be the chief goal, but since opening its doors in 2006, the program now offers a growing number of advanced classes for students who want to challenge themselves.

Last school year, the program served nearly 12,500 students in eighth through 12th grades – more than doubling in five years – and 93 percent of those passed with at least a D. Mitchell attributed the success to employing full-time teachers who aren't splitting their attention with a traditional classroom. The program added 10 in 2011-12, for a total of 28. Mitchell briefed the state Education Board's innovation subcommittee about the program Wednesday.

"I'm all for it," said board member Michael Brenan. "We need a variety of ways to reach our students if we're serious about educating them and getting them career-ready and college-ready."

Among the improvements scheduled for rollout this year are more courses offered to middle-schoolers and more honors-level high school classes. In addition, the program will offer more schools that have difficulty hiring qualified teachers a chance to try out a "blended" approach to learning – having students take online courses while in the classroom. The agency is charging only $3,500 flat fee per course, regardless of the number of students, saving the school money over hiring a teacher.

"Looking at hard-to-staff schools and hard-to-staff subject areas, with the caps gone, we have a program that really can be tailored to the needs of every school district," said agency spokesman Jay Ragley.

This fall, districts will also be able to "franchise" – offer online classes taught by district teachers with software and curriculum purchased from the state – enabling them to align online courses with their own school-year calendars. The fees for the pilot are not yet set, Ragley said. The program is also extending into the elementary grades in 2013-14. About 10,000 third- through sixth-graders are expected to take an online keyboarding class.

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