By Kristine Gill
School wasn’t moving fast enough for Nate Masterson.
The Fitch High School sophomore enrolled in the new alternative-school program so he could learn at his own pace.
“I wanted to be ahead,” he said. “I wanted to learn more, faster.”
Nate is one of about 70 students in the Austintown school district who have opted for the K-12 online program. Any student can enroll, and they choose to for a variety of reasons.
“There are 70-some students and 70-some reasons why they’re doing it,” said Janet Polish, coordinator of alternative-school and online programs. She also is the principal of this new program.
Polish was part-time principal of the alternative program that existed for seven years before this school year. That program offered nontraditional school hours where students could come in from 3 to 6 p.m. after the regular school day to receive their education. Coursework was not done online, and students usually had behavioral or academic problems that forced them out of the classroom.
“We opened up the possibilities with this program,” Polish said, adding that it was necessary considering the number of competing charter and online schools.
“Everyone is going to start doing this because everyone is losing their own kids,” she said.
And though students leave the district each year in hopes of finding a more suitable environment for themselves, Polish hopes the new structure will give them another option.
Now, students can use a computer lab on the Fitch campus housed in two trailers that sit near the high school. There are 48 computers and two tutors who supervise students from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays. Teachers from each of the major disciplines have regular hours and days for visits throughout the week when students can get help and are in e-mail communication the rest of the week.
Students spend most of their time at home or in the lab using software called iQity.
“It can get boring, but there’s some interesting stuff in here,” Nate said, scrolling through a lesson that included links to relevant YouTube videos.
For classes such as physical education, students are still required to do things such as run a mile and time it, or do pull-ups. These activities usually have to be signed off by a parent. For the digital-photography class, students will submit photos to be graded online.
If they choose to come to the lab, students get breaks to socialize with one another and eat lunch. Students can get food from the high school cafeteria and can still attend events such as prom and play sports. They receive their diplomas from Fitch High School.
Social interaction is a major concern for online learners, which is why Nate said he’ll likely head back to the brick and mortar of Fitch High School for his senior year.
“I want to do all the senior activities,” he said.
In the meantime, he doesn’t feel he’s missing out on much.
“I have friends in here,” he said, adding that he carpools with a friend who attends Fitch.
Nate said most of his friends weren’t fazed when he said he was taking the alternative program, but there are misconceptions.
“Some think it’s the easy way out,” he said.
The program is funded through a state grant for alternative schools. That $37,000 the district receives annually goes toward salaries for the two new tutors, and the school used its general funds to purchase the online software and curriculum. Austintown teachers receive a stipend to teach each of the classes. Many supplement the given curriculum with their own materials and communicate with students on a regular basis. Teachers grade those assignments, which can’t be assessed by a computer.
While the basis of the school is flexibility, there are rules. Students aren’t allowed to surf the Internet while in the lab and can’t use cell phones. Polish contacts parents when a student’s assignments aren’t turned in on time and if grades are low. There’s a dress code, too.
The program is open to all grade levels, but most are middle or high school students now.
Should the program continue to grow, Polish said the district has considered housing it in the old Davis Elementary School building, which is vacant.
Tutor Bonnie Centofanti, who has been with the district for a little over a month, likes the program so far and thinks the students function better in a classroom setting versus learning at home.
“I like it, but it’s not for everybody,” she said.