E-school enrollment explodes as 150 students sign-up

Parents: If a new school opened where your children can learn at their own pace and at the times most convenient for them, and if computer and Internet technology would be a major part of their studies, would you be interested?

About 150 Kauai students, and about 600 statewide, in all grade levels are enrolled in the Myron B. Thompson Academy, a charter public school that is changing the brick-and-mortar stereotype of what a school is. It allows kids to do their schoolwork whenever and wherever they want, with state Department of Education-supplied laptop and desktop computers making it possible.

“Since we have asynchronous (unscheduled) learning going on, it frees up a lot of the daytime to do a lot of fun things and educational things, and will be complemented by coursework,” said Principal Diana Oshiro.

At least a handful of high school-aged surfers plus other athletes from Kauai have signed up for the school so they can compete and travel while still receiving an education, Oshiro said.

Some are already enrolled. One of them is Ashley Fagerstedt, 17, whose parents live in Kapaa. She recently became a professional surfer, and is moving up in the surfing world with contest victories in California and Hawaii.

“It (Thompson Academy) was kinda tough on her, but she did pretty good,” said Lance Fagerstedt, Ashley’s father. “I think it was harder, but then you get a good education. But I think next year, she’s gonna go to regular high school, probably because she wants to hang with her girlfriends,”

Last year’s valedictorian is from Maui and an Olympic hopeful. Her lifestyle required her to be in Europe the majority of the time, Oshiro said. Regulations of the school say that unless a student’s parents are Hawaii residents, the student must be in residence in Hawaii for the start and end of the school year.

There is no limit on how many students can enroll because the online school is a public school.

Information from the Thompson Academy Web site shows that the school has just about hit its target for the upcoming school year, but registration will be open until the end of July. That’s enough time to have a computer shipped to the student’s home and set up to be ready for the start of school, which runs on a year-round calendar similar to the Kapaa public schools.

Thompson Academy is not completely virtual, though. A “blended environment” is planned for Kauai that allows students to work on service learning and other projects from satellite learning centers, likely to be set up here at the Lihue Missionary Church on Rice Street in Lihue for elementary school students, and at Kapaa High School for secondary school students.

“The question you have to ask in any educational reorganization debate is whether or not seat time correlates to learning,” Oshiro said. “And I can honestly say we have a lot more seat time.”

There’s no time limit saying that a student has to finish a course in a certain amount of time, Oshiro said. At the end of each course, students prepare a portfolio exhibiting their work.

The online students are also allowed to participate in athletics at their local complex school. Other activities such as membership in school clubs are negotiated with the schools.

Required progress assessments are administered by a DOE proctor at a learning center site. Instead of having parent-teacher conferences, or waiting for a quarterly report card, students’ activities can be checked by parents on a daily basis.

The DOE provides educational materials and computers, but does not pay for Internet access. The only other cost is a mandatory fee of $150 for maintenance and damage insurance. More than 50 corporations and educational programs have pledged support, the school’s leaders say.

“Probably it’s quite novel and fits more into a modern lifestyle,” Oshiro said. “I don’t think its wise to say they’re disenchanted with regular school.”

The Thompson Academy allows students an alternative to the traditional school environment, yet also enables students to maintain their youthful lifestyle alongside other students their age, Oshiro said when asked to explain why she thought dozens of Kauai parents are signing their children up.

The school’s plan states that they are also targeting long-term hospitalized students and students in very remote areas without certain areas of coursework available through their traditional school. Also, teen mothers, those who need an environment with a smaller student-to-teacher ratio, and students who need to be challenged can excel.

“One unique advantageis that all students are equal,” the write up says. “Age, ability, gender, and race are not issues. Students meet digitally rather than physically. It is the content of a student’s online participation that determines acceptance by others with whom they collaborate on various projects,” the school’s strategic plan also states.

“Educational activities remain the focus of real time class events. Students are free from stereotypes and peer criticisms that sometimes occur in traditional face-to-face classrooms.”

Last year was the school’s first year of operation after being restructured from the “E-Charter” concept in school year 2000-01. Thompson administrators enrolled about 110-120 students statewide. Two years ago, about 60 students were enrolled but about half exited, Oshiro said.

Oshiro said she doesn’t yet know how many teachers and part-time teachers will be employed. Teachers within the online environment will have to teach everyone in the school, so they must have experience and have taken classes in or helped develop online courses, she said. Her background includes curriculum and instruction, and she worked for seven years overseeing information technology for the State of Hawaii.

Plans for Kauai call for having learning center teachers who will not necessarily be teaching online.

During the day, students will either be at home with their families, or with a group of other students working on service learning projects, or they will be working a regular job, Oshiro said.

Students with special needs are monitored by a team of teachers and staff, parents, and other external agencies that are required to address learning needs. Progress reports and records are maintained in the Thompson Academy database. Parents are able to request special education testing and services in the same way they would be able to do so at a campus-based school.

The Myron B. Thompson Academy may be contacted at One Waterfront Tower, 419 South Street, Honolulu HI 96813, via telephone at 808-537-5444, via fax at 808-537-5488, or via e-mail at mailto:info@thompsonacademy.org.

On the Web: http://www.thompsonacademy.org/strategicplan.htm.

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