Right now, just six out of 10 public high school students in New York City are graduating on time. In our ongoing series, “The Big Fix,” WNYC and the Web site GothamSchools are reporting on three troubled high schools that are trying to improve their graduation rates. One of them is Chelsea Career and Technical Education High School, in Manhattan. The school is now trying to get more seniors to graduate in June by letting them make up classes they failed with new, online courses.
Seventeen-year old Anthony Ortiz says he knew he had the potential to be a good student.
"I’ve always been one of the smartest in the class and I have the ability to understand the work and do it," he says. "But then also I’m just, I guess naturally, I just wanted to clown around."
Anthony wound up at Chelsea two years ago after getting kicked out of his Bronx Catholic school. But his behavior didn’t exactly improve. He admits he was talking in class and didn’t do his homework. Then, last year, when he was a junior, he got disgusted when he saw his winter report card. "Horrible grades," he recalls. "Like speed limits. Fifty-fives straight down. But now this year will be definitely different, I’m reaching for honors."
Anthony’s grades went up tremendously last spring. But he still has three classes to make up in history and science. High schools typically let kids who fail their classes take them over again, or come to summer school. But the explosion in online learning offers a new approach.
At Chelsea, seniors who failed their classes can spend one or two periods each day making them up online. Two teachers are assigned to help as the students sit at computers and work independently. Some are taking science and English. Anthony is taking U.S. history. He’s just finished reading a section about colonialism and now he’s taking the test. He stares at the computer screen and reads one of the questions.
"Why did the colonists settle along the James River?"
Anthony's answer: "So they could defend by a foreign attack."
This test is all multiple choice though some exams have written sections. There are 33 questions and Anthony needs to get 70 percent of them right in order to pass and move on to the next section of the online history course. I ask Anthony if this feels easier than a regular class. He says it's not.
"Maybe even harder ‘cause during the quiz itself, you have to actually answer all the questions without looking at anything and make sure have everything memorized. Whereas for in another class you might have an open book quiz and you know you can look at it."
But in a regular history class, Anthony (photo right) would have a certified history teacher. The two teachers supervising these online classes normally teach biology and business. In this relatively small high school of about 550 students, they were the only teachers available. Biology teacher Stan Kwiatowski, who goes by Mr. K, is stumped when Anthony asks him about a history question.
"Who was sent to Jamestown to serve as governor?" Kwiatowski reads aloud, musing to himself. "Captain John Smith," Anthony interjects.
"I’m not sure," says the teacher. "No I would say John Cabot."
"You sure?" Anthony asks him.
"No I’m not sure!" Kwiatowski laughs.
Anthony is sure it’s John Smith. But that’s not one of the four choices on the test. So his teacher does the only logical thing: he Googles it. Kwiatowsi says he wouldn’t normally do this. But the teachers and students "found that there’s been some errors in the [software] programs." Sometimes the multiple choice options aren't correct.
This wasn’t one of those cases, however. While Captain John Smith established Jamestown, the question asked who was sent to govern Jamestown. (It was Lord De La Warr, in case you forgot.)
Anthony fails. But he can take the test over because he’s allowed up to five tries – with different questions drawn from the same material. Kwiatowski says these online classes can’t replace regular classes where kids interact with their teachers. But he thinks some students will benefit from working at their own pace.
"The fact that all of these students failed in the regular setting makes it, I think, a more positive way to approach the subject for them," he says.
There’s a term for helping students make up classes they’ve failed without taking them over completely: Credit recovery. It’s a controversial topic. Some schools have been criticized for making it too easy for kids to pass by assigning a few essays or cramming sessions. The online courses at Chelsea are designed by Aventa Learning, which also offers Advanced Placement and foreign languages. Walter Da Luz, a representative assigned to New York City, says the credit recovery ones are new, but like all other Aventa courses they’re aligned with state standards.
"I would say the biggest myth out there about online learning is that it’s easy, it’s different, you just go to the computer and it gets done," Da Luz says. "Our program’s not like that."
In other words, it’s just like any other class. Kids have to show up, pay attention, and take notes. But they don’t always do that. When Da Luz visits Chelsea High, he meets kids who are frustrated. One of them is 17 year-old Mickel John. He was taking a physical science course until the software program lost his quizzes. "It’s like I’m basically starting the course again for a second time," he says. "Everything was erased."
Mickel shows the empty folder on his computer screen to Da Luz. The representative listens and apologizes. "I’m sorry that that happened for you," he says, looking over at Mickel's screen. "I will look into what caused that. Let me just take a couple of notes if you don’t mind."
During his visit, Da Luz also hears about students who have trouble logging-in. But many are absent. Few students take any notes. And one boy is asleep at his desk. Seventeen year-old Justine Bishop wants to know why she has to take quizzes in every section of her biology course plus a final exam. "Why can’t we just do the tests instead of having a final at the end?"
"Because this is just like a regular class," Da Luz tells her. "So just like in your regular class you can’t just tell the teacher I just want to skip all this stuff. Because it’s all about reinforcing what you learned."
Justine is taking notes on the questions she missed. The teachers handed out notebooks recently when they realized the students weren't writing anything down, because they presumed they could just read off the screen and then move on to the quizzes and exams.
Academics who have studied online learning in high school say it can be very effective for students who are highly motivated, such as those taking Advanced Placement courses. But the jury’s still out when it comes to struggling students who are making up credits. Experts say it can be helpful to let these students work at their own pace (since they failed in regular classroom settings). But they also need qualified teachers who can help them when they’re stuck.
Chelsea is one of ten city high schools this year in a pilot study using online courses to help students make up credits. The schools are trying different software programs at a cost to the city of $2 million. This is entirely different from the federal grant Chelsea received to improve teacher training and to extend the school day. The school is trying to raise its four-year graduation rate of 50 percent.
Between 50-60 students at Chelsea were assigned to online credit recovery classes. Kwiatowski, the teacher, says attendance is about 60 percent. By early November, he said six students had already completed an online class by putting in extra time on their home computers. They can now advance to other courses they need to make up.
But what if they’re just taking tests and not reading all the history or science material? Walter Da Luz of Aventa says that can happen in any classroom. And these kids don’t have time on their side.
"This is credit recovery," he states. "We’re not looking for every student to get an A. We’re looking at them to develop, to display a mastery that proves they can move on."
And with more than 130 seniors at Chelsea, many of whom are still missing credits, it’s all about getting them to graduate in June.