Online School in a Mall Gives Flexibility to Non-traditional Students

In 2010, T.C. Williams High School, part of the Alexandria, Virginia school district, was named one of the country’s persistently lowest-achieving schools. They have used federal funding to turn that around and boost their graduation rate by opening a satellite campus that allows students a flexible online learning experience, reports Michael Alison Chandler of the Washington Post.

The campus is located at a nearby mall. It may seem like an unlikely spot for a classroom, but the location is easily accessible by public transportation, close to job opportunities, and allows for long hours.

Early returns show the program, which started in September, has been a success.

Out of 51 seniors enrolled at the campus this year, two moved away from Alexandria, and 49 are scheduled to graduate this summer, many of them Saturday with the Class of 2013.

Alexandria’s approach to virtual learning is a “hybrid” or “blended” model that combines online learning with personal instruction. A full online curriculum is offered through a contract with Herdon-based K12 Inc., the nation’s largest operator of blended and full-time virtual schools. Aside from working with online teachers, students have the opportunity to work with teachers in person as mentors, which allows students to get detailed instruction if they get stuck.

The campus is open Monday through Friday from 8am to 8pm and on Saturday from 10am to 2 pm. Students work in cubicles with school-issued laptops.

The students must be on campus at least 20 hours a week, but may continue to log on and work from anywhere. Students also have the option of enrolling in career and technical classes or extracurriculars, and a shuttle is available to take them from the mall to the main campus.

T.C. Williams High School surpassed the enrollment goal of 100 students for their satellite campus. By the end of this year 116 students had enrolled with eight who had previously dropped out.

The campus is an important part of a larger goal of helping Alexandria’s most vulnerable students. A team of counselors was hired to assist these students and their families. An international academy was also created to meet the needs of immigrant students who are still learning English.

In 2009, 78 percent of students graduated from T.C. Williams in four years, compared with 83 percent across Virginia. By 2012, the high school’s on-time graduation rate increased to 82 percent. The rate for Hispanic students increased from 65 percent to 70 percent, and for African Americans it grew from 79 percent to 82 percent.

The satellite program also gives more traditionally successful students an alternative way to finish school more quickly. For example, a student finished her senior year in one semester in order to take part in a leadership program in Fiji, New Zealand and Australia.

Despite its success, the satellite campus will most likely have to move next year since the mall is scheduled for reconstruction.

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