One-third of the Wichita school district's record enrollment growth this year came from students who may never set foot in a traditional school.
Of the 900 additional students in the district of about 50,000, roughly 90 came from the Internet-based eSchool and 200 from the district's four Learning Centers, which offer computer-based courses to high school dropouts.
"A big part of it is students who would have left previously, we're keeping," said Robin Surland, who leads the eSchool and Learning Centers.
She said the district is keeping more students because of a new dropout policy that requires counseling and better promotion of both programs.
Keeping kids in school
Several potential drop-outs have a story similar to Nick Wilson's. He has attended the downtown Workforce Learning Center since January.
When Wilson found out his girlfriend was pregnant last year, he stopped going to South High School — period.
He said he couldn't go to class and take care of a family, and he thought that if he didn't go to class every day, he wouldn't earn a high school diploma.
But through online research, Wilson and his girlfriend found Wichita's Learning Centers and flexible hours.
"If we wouldn't have found this place, both of us just would've dropped out," Wilson said.
Now, when he's not at his part-time job, he comes in to the Learning Center at the Workforce Center to earn credits toward a diploma from North High School. He said he doesn't want to settle for passing a GED test.
"It's a lot harder with a GED to get a job," Wilson said, adding that he has seen his parents struggle with employment because they didn't finish high school.
Last year the district started requiring that students under 18 who want to drop out receive counseling not only at their school but also at the Workforce Center.
"What we were really discouraged about was finding out (the counseling) the schools were doing had not exposed them to all the options," said Denise Wren, assistant superintendent of high schools.
The Workforce Center houses career and social services not connected with the school district. About 40 percent of the students who asked to drop out last year and received counseling at the Workforce Center didn't drop out, Wren said.
She said keeping those students could help lower the district's dropout rate, and if they graduate in four years, they count in the district's graduation rate.
Online learning option
With the near-doubling of eSchool students and deep budget cuts districtwide, Learning Center director Surland ran out of computer equipment, which the district provides. To enroll during the computer shortage, students have to have their own computers, she said.
All students must have their own Internet access.
The eSchool program is steadily growing as more students become aware of the option, Surland said.
When the district started offering the online program 10 years ago, mostly home-schooled children used it, Wren said.
"We want to expand that to serve more kids away for long-term suspensions or in other countries," she said.
Now, several homebound or at-risk students not comfortable in classroom settings are enrolled in online courses, Surland said.
About 10 full-time teachers work for the eSchool, connected almost constantly to students through their laptops, she said. They use Skype for video-conferencing with students.
Teaching online can be more challenging and time-consuming than face-to-face learning with dozens of students, said Marcus Childress, professor and chairman of instructional design and technology at Emporia State University.
He said those studying to be teachers are required to take courses online and learn how to design Web-based classes.
"As an online instructor, I know my students probably better," Childress said. "I interact with them almost every day."
Students and teachers
Computer-based programs are not meant to pull students from the Wichita district's traditional schools, Surland and Wren said.
"We prefer they go to a comprehensive high school or the metro (alternative high school) route," Wren said. "I don't think you can ever do away with the teacher-student relationship. We see it as a primary foundation to education."
The worry people have that computer-based programs take away the socialization aspect of school is valid, Childress said. But children have other ways to meet people.
"I don't think we'll come to a day when every class a young child has is online," he said, adding that he sees more of a hybrid form of online and classroom courses.
Wren said she also expects more online courses for K-12 students in traditional schools. The eSchool is "just the tip of the iceberg," she said.
Wilson said he enjoys the individual learning atmosphere of the Learning Center, but he also values the help from two teachers when he has questions.
On Friday, he was one of about 15 students working on computers at the Learning Center.
Wilson said the quiet helps him concentrate. He can take breaks whenever he wants.
After he earns his high school degree, he is considering technical college or entering law enforcement.
"It's more of an inspiration knowing about these places... when you do not think there's a way to get your diploma," he said.