Students dropping out of online school

Myron B. Thompson Academy, the state’s first online-based charter school, has had a bumpy first couple of months this school year, with a burglary, computer virus and worm, and other technical problems causing some Kaua‘i students to drop out of the program and go back to traditional schools.

Most of the “around 20” students of the online school who have dropped out over the past month or so live on Kaua‘i, said Diana Oshiro, the principal of Myron B. Thompson Academy. She could not say how many Kaua‘i students had been enrolled or exactly how many students had dropped out.

“The first term is always filled with all types of challenges,” said Oshiro, a 30-year veteran of the Hawai‘i public-school system and the originator of the e-schools project idea, which received a $4.7 million grant from the state Department of Education in 1994. But this year, the third year of full-time instruction on the Internet, things have been even more difficult.

“It’s much better now,” she said of technical and other problems being cleared up about six weeks into the school year.

Myron B. Thompson Academy’s second year (it was called E-School in the 2001-2002 school year) saw the school’s enrollment grow five times larger than the 2002-2003 school year, from 123 students to 620. It also expanded to include all grades, including a K-6 program that combines with home schooling, from just a high school last year.

The school year was supposed to start in early July, but officials had problems getting the computer equipment to all the students, said Oshiro. Then a burglary to the school’s headquarters on O‘ahu left the teachers without computers, lesson plans, and software to contact students.

Just when everything was set up and school was under way, last week, a blaster worm, similar to a computer virus, and a MSN virus, left the state Department of Education’s Web sites reeling, and many Neighbor Island students unable to log on to the server connecting them to their school, said Oshiro.

Kaua‘i students “couldn’t do their homework,” she said.

This was the last straw for some Kaua‘i students.

“He was getting so frustrated,” said one Kapa‘a parent whose son started at the online school this year. “We are going to try (a correspondence school) so he can write it down on paper and mail it in. Who knows when the next virus will happen.”

“The ones who stuck with it, persevering, sticking through the mess, are seeing good things happening,” and the amazing freedom that the school allows, said Oshiro.

“The school is different,” she said. “It’s a different kind of learning. It’s more self-directed.”

Many students who were used to the timelines being really important, like they are in a normal school, were afraid of falling behind, she said, but since they only had three courses per semester, “they shouldn’t become alarmed.”

“The communication gap was the problem,” said the parent, who did not wish to be identified. He talked to Oshiro by phone on Friday and said that he felt better about the program after talking to her. “They had all these assignments and deadlines, and the computers were down” and his son could not do his work. Oshiro said that the deadlines could have been extended in that case.

Bethany Hamilton, 13, an eighth grader at Thompson Academy, waded through all the computer glitches with the help of her older brother Noah, and has begun to enjoy working online.

“It’s a really good way to learn,” she said. “We’re almost through the quarter already, and everything has mellowed.”

As for the time constraints, “It’s not hard keeping up,” Bethany said, adding that her teachers gave her extra time to complete the work when the computers had problems.

“We’re liking it now,” said her mother, Cheri.

“Getting to surf more is good for me,” said Bethany, who is one of the top-rated female amateur surfers in Hawai‘i.

Staff writer Tom Finnegan may be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 226).

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