Administrators at Fulton County (Ga.) Public Schools, a district of 88,000 students surrounding the city of Atlanta, had difficulty finding a strategy to help students recover the credits lost when they failed a course and were in danger of not graduating. While the district’s graduation rates tended to be above the Georgia state average by as much as 8 percent over the past several years, administrators were seeking improvement.
“If a student failed a class, there was no way for them to make it up except at night school or summer school,” which carried a fee, says Susan Sams, the district’s virtual campus administrator, who oversees their online educational initiatives. “It was reading and writing, but it was boring. There was no interaction,” Sams says of their paper-and-pencil-based credit recovery materials. “It was similar to what was done in the classroom, but there was no teaching and learning.”
Michael H. Robinson, the former principal of Creekside High School and one of the administrators searching for an engaging, Web-based alternative, agreed. “We weren’t sure that the kids were grasping the content. They were memorizing, but they weren’t understanding the information,” he says.
The district—63 percent of its students on free or reduced lunch and many unable to pay the after-school credit recovery fee—sought to use technology to help students make up lost time during school hours. So in 2005 administrators turned to PLATO Learning software to deliver the district’s “Encore” credit recovery program, a free, online opportunity for Fulton County students to make up lost credit during school hours and extended day/night school. The district incurred all costs. “This allows us a good deal of flexibility,” Sams says, noting that the course work is self-paced.
Under the program, students are assigned to courses for which they need to recover credits. Students have the opportunity to take a pretest that allows school officials to see how much material they might have picked up before failing a course. Each online course is divided into several modules, which are aligned to Georgia state standards and consist of application, offline activities and a mastery test. Students take about five weeks to recover a single credit. “We made sure the standards were just as rigorous as the state standards,” said Robinson, whose school was one of the first to embrace the Encore program.
Students work at their own pace, alongside a teacher who checks their work and helps them if they require academic assistance.
Sams says the programs continue to attract student interest, allowing those who might never have completed their high school educations to do so. The Encore program was a crucial factor in the district’s raising its graduation rate from 75 percent for the 2004-2005 year to approximately 80 percent for the 2006-2007 year.
In addition, a program that began three years ago with just over 200 students has grown to over 1,400 participants for the 2007-2008 school year as more struggling students transition from the district’s still-in-use paper system to PLATO. Sams expects to add another 200 students in the current academic year. Course offerings include English for grades 9-11, British literature, physical science, biology, algebra 1 and 2, geometry, U.S. history, world history, economics and political science.
What was once difficult for the district—finding a way to keep borderline students engaged and involved in the educational process—has become a strength. “Things are more innovative now,” says Robinson.
Steven Scarpa is a freelance writer based in New Haven, Conn.