EDUCATION Cyberspace school finishes first year, with mixed reviews

Ohio's first online charter school got off to a rocky start.
Jaclyn Carnegie was never much into pomp and circumstance, caps and gowns and the whole high school graduation thing anyway.
So today, instead of walking across her high school stage with her fellow classmates, Carnegie will flip on the computer in her Columbiana County home, log onto the Web site of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow and graduate.
With a few friends and family at her side, basking in the glow of the computer monitor and munching on pizza, Carnegie will become one of the initial graduates of Ohio's first cyberspace school.
And what's more appropriate for a virtual school than a virtual commencement?
"I guess this is what the computer age has brought us," Carnegie said.
Ceremony set: ECOT, a charter school started last fall that offers classes over the Internet to 2,700 Ohio students, will hand out its first diplomas to 14 graduates at a ceremony this morning in the atrium of the Ohio State Capitol.
Nine other graduates, including Carnegie, won't make the trip to Columbus and instead will view the activities on a Web cast live on ECOT's Web site.
"Overall, it's been a challenging, positive experience," Carnegie said.
The online school provides students with free personal computers, printers, scanners and telephone lines in their homes, where they can log onto ECOT's curriculum and earn school credits.
ECOT, which employs 80 certified teachers whom students can reach by telephone or e-mail, receives about $5,000 a year per pupil in state funds. Students do not pay tuition.
"This is the wave of the future," said Brian Usher, ECOT's communications director.
But the school's first year has had more than its share of bumps.
Problems: The State Board of Education refused to approve the school, saying it needed more time to study the concept. ECOT, instead, sought and won approval of the Lucas County Educational Service Center in Toledo, as allowed by state law.
In November, ECOT's superintendent was removed from office. In May, three ECOT board members resigned, citing disagreements with the school's management.
The school also had a string of difficulties delivering computers and getting the program online on time, said Tom Baker, Lucas County ESC superintendent.
"There were some kids that were left out hanging, and they just can't do that," he said.
"Without a doubt, it had some serious problems, and we have given them the ultimatum that next year has to be much better."
"We're floating in unchartered waters," Usher said. "We think it's improved quite a bit and will get better."
Carnegie said she enrolled in ECOT last fall after falling one English credit shy of graduating from Louisville High School in Stark County.
Suffering from fibromyalgia, a condition that causes aching, stiffness and fatigue, Carnegie said she was frequently absent from school and that special tutoring and other programs didn't work.
"The regular school situation, in general, has never been very good for me," she said from her home in Calcutta. "It's surprising I was able to scrape my way through a lot of it."
Her experience: Problems with the newfangled school, however, surfaced quickly, she continued. The computer equipment didn't arrive until November. There were many technical bugs and contacting teachers and others at ECOT was extremely difficult.
"A lot of the initial problems that I had was just communicating with people," Carnegie, 18, said. "I'd call somebody thinking the person they needed to talk to was just down the hall from them, and I'd find out they were in another city.
"They have offices in Columbus and their technical people are in Cincinnati and my English teacher lives in Toledo."
Jessica Shade, 18, of Austintown, said she had similar problems. Shade said she attended Jackson-Milton High School in her junior year and enrolled in ECOT in August 2000 to finish her high school career. In April, she left ECOT.
"The worst thing that I realized was that you can't just raise your hand and ask a question," Shade said.
Shade instead enrolled in Life Skills Center, another alternative charter school in Youngstown. She said she received her diploma June 2 from Life Skills.
Despite a trying first year, Shade said she thinks ECOT will be successful.
"It's a great concept," Shade said. "Once they get things taken care of and get all the bumps evened out, I think it will be a great program."

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