KETCHIKAN — The Ketchikan School District is becoming more flexible and effective in reaching every student’s needs with its burgeoning distance learning, homeschool and summer school programs, officials say.
“It’s really about individualizing the whole instruction,” Fast Track Virtual School Director Bill Whicker said.
Revilla Alternative School has offered traditional homeschooling programs for K-12 students since its founding in 1973, Revilla Principal Doug Gregg said. It continues to offer those, and support for homeschool families through the Fast Track program.
Gregg and Whicker — both of whom earned their advanced degrees through distance programs — recalled the earlier days of Revilla’s correspondence program, when teachers travelled by boat to remote areas to serve students.
Whicker, who started the PACE correspondence school in Craig in 2000, took the reins of the new Fast Track program in 2009.
Whicker said that, in addition to the students’ study at home, they often also can attend classes at district schools, or use district resources, such as online chemistry class students utilizing Ketchikan High School’s science labs. Some Fast Track students also use Ketchikan High School’s computer labs.
Gregg said the program previously served few elementary students, possibly because other programs were available, but the number of students at that age has increased recently. Now the numbers are holding at about 50 percent K-8 students. That includes middle-school-level students.
This year, Whicker said he has 41 K-8 students and 38 high-school students.
The younger students work more with traditional paper, pencil and textbook curriculum, Whicker and Gregg said, and the older students work increasingly online.
Last year, for the first time, statewide regulations were established to control correspondence courses, they said. Every student must have an “individualized learning plan,” as one new requirement. Whicker helps the students and their parents fill out the ILP forms which ask what type of assessments they want, where they want to buy their curriculum materials, and what their educational activities will be.
Course materials must meet all state standards, and Whicker and Gregg said computers are checked out to full-time students for use during the school year.
A component of the Fast Track program that has grown most rapidly since Whicker has been running it is online offerings.
Recently, Fast Track was approved as a state-wide correspondence school, and Whicker said Ketchikan Schools Superintendent Robert Boyle is hoping to expand the program to cover non-local students.
Gregg said they aim to have experienced teachers to support students, and it can be difficult to find teachers, who usually already have a full class schedule, with time also to work with correspondence students. Gregg and Whicker said they are scrambling, at this point, to serve the growing number of local students who are signed up.
Fast Track serves an array of students with different needs and goals, Gregg and Whicker said. One example they gave was youth who are in transition in the Residential Youth Care facility. Those students often use the program to finish classes and to catch up on credits needed for graduation. Other students who want to graduate early use the online classes to jump ahead; some students take required high school classes online to free their schedules for more electives; and many students take the summer school classes to finish a class they need more time for.
Another program Fast Track and Revilla offer is summer school. Revilla’s is a four-week program in which students work in the school half-days on one or two classes. Teachers are hired to help students complete traditional coursework.
“I can’t imagine running Revilla without summer school,” Gregg said.
In the 2011, 85 summer-school students completed 175 classes.
Fast Track’s summer program gives the students the entire summer to complete online classes, Whicker said, offering flexibility, for traveling students and those who want to be able to do coursework 24/7.
According to Gregg, Kayhi offered summer school until it lost funding prior to the 2011 session. Revilla’s and Fast Track’s programs are becoming more of a unified hub that all area students are utilizing to supplement their education, he said.
Gregg said that he estimates that about half of Kayhi’s 2011 graduates had earned class credits from Revilla or Fast Track.
Whicker said they work very hard to monitor students and to help them pace themselves and finish the courses. They also make sure teachers are available to answer questions and offer help.
Although the state does offer a distance education program, Gregg said, those classes cost about $300 each, and it offers only about 15 K-12 classes compared to the 119 free classes that Fast Track does. Fast Track also allows students to enroll at any time of the year, whereas the state program opens enrollment only twice per year.
Gregg and Whicker both received grants that helped to support the programs, allowing students to take classes free. If the numbers continue to grow, and the programs do expand to serve students statewide, they said they may have to charge a small tuition fee in the future.
“I think this district is pretty much on that forward edge ... of offering a variety of programs to meet student needs,” Gregg said.
Whicker agreed, adding, “It’s all about the opportunities for kids, trying to fit individual needs.”