Skype academy 101


School is in session, but there’s not a single student in Kaller Gilbert’s classroom.

by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Kaller Gilbert works between two laptops as she previews an online math lesson that she is preparing. Gilbert uses a headset to listen to lessons and Skype with her students

She can, however, see them via Skype on her computer screen, and talk with them for as long as they need to figure out their math problem.

“They text me, call me, email me, Skype me,” says Gilbert, one of four teachers now working at the Hillsboro Online Academy, the state’s first public online school. “They come in to see me. I talk to kids all day long.”

Based at a former elementary school-turned conference center just down the block from downtown Hillsboro, the academy has enrolled 110 students from throughout the district — three times the number originally planned for.

The academy serves grades seven through 12, and is fully sponsored by the Hillsboro School District.

It isn’t the only online school in town, though. The Oregon Connections Academy — a free online charter school serving 3,000 students in grades K-12 — is in fact holding two informational sessions this week in Hillsboro, inviting parents to talk with families who are currently enrolled.

Some families have been confusing the two schools, thinking they’re signing up for one when in fact it is the other, says Hillsboro Online Academy Principal Linda Harrington.

by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Online Academy Principal Linda Harrington

She’s trying to distinguish them by pointing out that hers is very much locally based and supported, while the Connections Academy is a for-profit company based in Baltimore. They serve students in 22 states through 24 virtual public schools. Worldwide, students are served through their online private school, National Connections Academy.

Harrington says the Oregon Connections Academy’s program is strong, “but it bothers me as a taxpayer that the money is going to the East Coast.”

Shoestring budget

by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - English teacher Tyler Phelps teaches from the spartan office of the Hillsboro Online Academy.

As an online school, the Hillsboro academy isn’t required to hire unionized teachers, a liberty charter schools have as well. Harrington, however, has worked with the Hillsboro Education Association in hiring all four teachers so far (in math, social studies, science and English), who work on a part-time basis. She’s now in the process of hiring a P.E., health, Spanish, technology, art and drama teachers through the union as well.

Another distinction Harrington draws is the budget of both online schools. The Connections Academy pays for TV and other advertising, while the Hillsboro academy is operating “on a shoestring,” she says.

The classroom desks, chairs, white boards and projector — for drop-in class lessons — are remnants of the conference center’s furniture. The student lounge is furnished with thrift store sofas and tables. Harrington aims to build a library of used textbooks and novels for students to supplement their online reading assignments.

The idea is to have physical resources for students — including in-person visits with staff anytime during the school day Monday through Thursday — rather than an entirely virtual experience.

“The hybrid model seems to work best,” she says. “We opened it as a drop-in center; we’re here if you need help.”

Not grandma’s questions

The popularity of both programs shows the booming interest in online learning.

At the Hillsboro Online Academy (452 N.E. Third St.), students have enrolled for a variety of reasons: they’ve been homeschooled in the past and need more help at the higher levels; they have medical or anxiety issues that make traditional classroom learning difficult; or they’re just tired of huge class sizes and need more one-on-one tutoring time from their teacher. by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Principal Linda Harrington stops in the doorway to talk with the teachers of the Hillsboro Online Academy.

That’s something this model is ideally suited for, says Gilbert, who teaches all of the sections of math, ranging from geometry to pre-calculous to Advanced Placement statistics and calculus.

She explains how Skype allows her to focus entirely on one student at a time, which isn’t a reality in any classroom. “This is not synchronous communication, this is asynchronous communication,” she says. “They know I will get back to them. You remove all that anxiety — they’re much more willing to ask for help.”

Some students, she says, are motivated by the fact that they can get ahead if they like, since they work at their own pace — with their parents and teachers frequently keeping tabs and checking in.

“I do a lot of online nagging,” Gilbert says, noting that she’ll call a student if she sees they haven’t yet logged in. As far as the rigor of work, Gilbert says outsiders might imagine it’s easy to cheat or skate by with online classes.

But she says that’s not the case. It is college-prep work, from a regarded curriculum program called Florida Virtual School.

“The curriculum here is dynamite; the rigor is harder, she says. “We have discussion-based assessments. These are not your grandmother’s multiple-choice questions. These are really good questions.”