The superintendent of the New Jerusalem School District in rural Tracy has opened a new online school through a partnership with the private company Advanced Academics, one where someone could earn a high school diploma without stepping foot in a classroom.
Teachers answer questions and instruct students out of an office in a shopping center on Grant Line Road. Aside from the cubicles, which are decorated with sports memorabilia or photos of loved ones, the place is pretty plain office space.
Thoming said the online school — called Delta Pacific — offers an alternative for students who might not learn best in a classroom. So far, he said, about 150 boys and girls in the 771-student district are logged in. Kids in the sixth through 12th grades in San Joaquin County, or any contiguous county, can enroll at Delta Pacific and become New Jerusalem students.
Something had to be done to shake up the status quo of today’s education, Thoming said. He added that many other school districts — such as those in Patterson, Salida and Lodi — have asked him about how the online school works.
Thoming recalls talking to a math teacher in an out-of-state district who also thought the way education works now might not be best for every student. While New Jerusalem has healthy test scores, Thoming said he empathized with that teacher, who wanted something more for his students.
“He was told that 40 percent of (his) kids are going to fail the first year of algebra, but that’s OK, because they’ll just take it again next year,” Thoming said. “He said, ‘Wait a minute, you’re telling me, as a teacher, I’m going to get a D? That’s as good as I can possibly get, and that’s OK?’
“It didn’t make any sense to him, and it doesn’t make any sense to me, either.”
Tracy Unified School District has a similar online setup through Kaplan — called Kaplan Academy of North Central California — which also launched this year.
Tracy Unified spokeswoman Jessica Cardoza said students in the same grade range and regions as at New Jerusalem can earn a diploma online from the state-funded charter school.
About 100 students are enrolled at Tracy’s school now, Kaplan spokesman Matt Given said. While the school is not a Tracy Unified campus, he said, the district does have oversight and gets about $350 per online student from the state.
Delta Pacific will bring in about $975,000 for New Jerusalem, Thoming said. Advanced Academics will receive 45 percent of that, 40 percent will pay salaries for eight teachers and the district will keep the rest for overhead costs.
The school’s teachers said students get the same kind of education if they were in a normal classroom, including electives and Advanced Placement courses.
While the online students can’t yet take part in New Jerusalem or Delta Charter High School extracurricular activities, such as baseball, Thoming said the district is gauging student interest and might have something next school year. Kaplan’s academy offers some clubs, Given said, but not sports.
New Jerusalem students can take a mix of online and on-campus classes or take the whole curriculum online. If they find one way doesn’t suit them, they can switch at the end of the semester.
For foreign language courses, the district has a contract with PowerSpeak. Through that company, a student can work through Spanish, French, German, Latin, Japanese, Mandarin or Russian translations over the phone. Students also record spoken homework assignments through PowerSpeak for teachers to hear.
Students exercise independently for physical education, and Thoming said the course’s curriculum is focused on nutrition and health, though the district in this case has to trust the student will exercise, and there’s little oversight.
For lab science classes, though, such as biology or chemistry, a student can dissect a virtual frog or test acids and bases online. Given said the setup is roughly the same for Kaplan’s academy. Videos also accompany most lessons.
If students have a question, they can call a teacher directly between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., chat with an instructor online or send an e-mail. Some teachers said they prefer such interactions, as they can talk with students one on one instead of trying to keep 20 or 30 kids on task.
“I think this is a trend in education,” science teacher Chuck Pederson said.
Without the threat of a teacher present, many students might be tempted to cheat. But Delta Pacific officials have a way to answer that, too. During an online test, if someone tries to open a
new browser window, the program will block it.
When students submit papers, teachers run them through TurnItIn.com, which highlights sentences pulled from Web sites to catch potential plagiarists. Instructors read the papers and give them back to the students with comments on their work. Electives teacher Chuck Feathers said he keeps his own notes in a file on his computer, so he can instantly remind himself of a student’s strengths and weaknesses.
While there are always workarounds to Delta Pacific’s cheating controls, Pederson said, it’s not much different from the challenges of academic honesty in a classroom.
Students said they enjoy the freedom to work at their own pace. Pederson said many of his students don’t log in until about 11 a.m., but they still get their work done on time.
“Delta Pacific had a lot of options for me to graduate on time, which wasn’t looking like an option with my other school,” said Holly Dowd, a 17-year-old senior from Union City. “It’s really interesting, because it fits my style of learning exactly. I can read for myself, I can go at my own pace and I can go back and look at it.”