As tens of thousands of children head back to Tucson Unified School District campuses, some seventh- through 12th-graders won't be joining them. Instead, they'll be attending a virtual campus, where classes are offered online, one of several creative approaches to education now being utilized within the district.
"(Some) are home-schooled or homebound students," explains TUSD administrator Stuart Baker about the Internet pupils. "But the majority take one or two classes online, and they're in school the rest of the time."
Baker indicates these students may use the Internet because of time constraints in their schedule, or perhaps because they need to complete a prerequisite course before taking a required course. Plus, he observes: "Some kids don't like the drama of high school."
While they can take their online courses anywhere and anytime, students in these classes are tested at schools to ensure they've personally completed the work.
During the last school year, Baker says there were about 100 students who took advantage of these virtual courses, and that number increased over the summer. In the future, he believes, the figures will go much higher.
"Mesa has 5,000 students" in virtual learning, Baker says, "and 5,000 isn't an unreasonable number to take one or two classes here. I don't know how quickly it will grow to that, but I do expect it to double in size each of the next two years."
The current virtual TUSD curriculum is text-based, but it uses some video; Baker says changes are being examined to provide more variety. These curriculum changes should be considered by the TUSD Governing Board shortly.
"We hope to make it more interactive," Baker says.
Emphasizing that virtual classes for high school students are a national trend, Baker says: "What's best for the kids is to provide choices."
The students at Howenstine High Magnet School are also utilizing technological choices to advance learning. Using video-conferencing facilities at the nearby UA, they're communicating with a high school in Chile about astronomy.
This year, Howenstine freshmen and sophomores will also be provided with free tablet-style laptop computers, which allow students to take notes on them. "They can also use the tablets to track astronomical data and look at the stars," says Howenstine principal Jimmy Hart.
Now in its second year, the free-tablet program will eventually expand to each Howenstine student. At the end of the last school term, Hart says, all of the tablets were returned in good shape.
"Technological literacy did increase because of the distribution of the tablets, along with the comprehension of Internet safety," Hart says. "The program will help the students function in a technological society."
Howenstine isn't just helping students learn about Internet safety; the service-learning magnet school is also helping students learn about another type of safety: Classes this year will focus on the topic of seat belts.
Teacher Shelly Camp secured a small grant for the school and believes the seat-belt program will bring several opportunities to the classroom.
"We'll integrate it into physics by discussing what occurs when no seat belt is worn," Camp says. "The biology class can look at what happens when organs suffer severe impact, and business students will prepare a brochure about seat-belt safety. The drama class will do a public-service announcement, and the students in government class can propose new legislation which would allow the police to pull over someone not wearing a seat belt."
Hart and Camp agree that there will also be intense competition among the students for the six slots available to publicly discuss seat-belt safety.
"They'll go out to elementary schools and community groups throughout the year," Hart says of these students. "It will make the whole school feel like part of the program. Because we're a service-learning magnet, seat-belt safety will be our overarching theme, so the students can see the outcome of the project."
While Howenstine's enrollment of approximately 200 makes it small as far as TUSD high schools go, Pistor Middle School, on the city's southwest side, has 1,100 students, meaning it is the largest middle school in the district.
Instructing all these kids are 11 teams of teachers in language arts, social studies, math and science. They meet daily among themselves and weekly with the principal while compiling a data notebook to track how each student is doing.
"At the beginning of the last school year," recalls principal Kit Manley-Crockett, "some other administrators and I spoke to each student about their grades, the AIMS test and their attendance. (Students) also set academic goals for themselves, which were sent home to their parents. This year, we plan on meeting with them twice."
Near the end of the school year, educators also talked to Pistor students who were falling behind. "It made somewhat of an impact," Manley-Crockett remembers.
After these meetings, "some parents pulled the student out of school and put them into a charter school, because they didn't want them (held back). Other students did the work," says Manley-Crockett.
Using a combination of enrichment classes to concentrate on subjects in which students might need help, a 90-minute daily reading class, and tutors to assist students (especially with math), Manley-Crockett says proudly of Pistor: "Our test scores went up this year, and the parents seem to appreciate what we're doing."