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August 31, 2012
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Virtual education

Daniel McRae, 15, entered the classroom in August, ready for his first day of class. But the chat room required a password, not a key, and McRae is a 10th-grader, not a collegian.

When it comes to high school, the drama in the classroom can be just as as stressful as the work required to create the perfect resume. A traditional experience can be rough, and it might not be for everyone.

That's where Visions in Education comes in. It's a tuition-free, public charter school which provides high-quality standards-based education to independent study high school students. Chartered in the San Juan Unified School District, Visions serves nine northern California counties, including El Dorado County and the Lake Tahoe Basin.

Visions EDGE Administrator Christina McKinnis doesn't use the term "online high school" to describe EDGE, a program for high school students where teachers use online tools to lead students toward their high school diploma. Rather, she calls it a "blended program," one where students do their work independently and online, but where they also meet their teachers in person at least twice a month. EDGE also offers field trips, social events, and community service opportunities.

That type of learning environment attracts a variety of students like McRae looking for a more flexible, less stressful experience than the traditional classroom environment would provide.

"We have students who want to get away from the drama of high school. Some of them are athletes and we also have students who couldn't quite make it in the traditional academic setting," McKinnis said.

South Lake Tahoe resident Summer Saya enrolled her son, McRae, in the EDGE program halfway through his ninth-grade year. She pulled him out of the middle school after seventh grade because other students bullied him, and was home schooling McRae when she heard about the online option. She said she's happy with the direction her son's education has taken now, and thinks the independent study will prepare him for the future.

"They can't stay in the program if they don't do the work," Saya said. "It reminds me of a college course online, where they're learning to work independently. It's teaching them for college."

Bullying is no longer an issue, and Saya said her son has more friends than he ever had in elementary and middle school classrooms. Field trips to miniature golf courses or to museums help bring the youth together, she said.

Krista Magennis, a credentialed EDGE teacher and facilitator who supports McRae and other students in El Dorado County, left the classroom two years ago to start working with Visions. The switch gives her more flexibility - with three children at home, she said she appreciates not having to commute every day - during a tumultuous time in the public education community.

Magennis taught elementary school for six years before coming to Visions, and she said in many ways the independent study isn't so different from the classroom. The school has put on a dance, published an online yearbook, and elected a student government body. Youth can even participate in their district's high school sports with the permission of the area's athletic director.

"I love my job and the fact that students are in different locations, you'd be surprised at the friendships they can form. I've seen connections happen with these kids that are out of this world," Magennis said.

Magennis oversees a group of 25 students in and around El Dorado County. It's her responsibility to arrange bimonthly meetings with the youth and make sure they're all on track to graduate, but the students interact with other content specialist teachers through online tools like Google Chat and Skype.

Next school year, Visions EDGE will graduate its first senior class. A program that started three years ago with 75 ninth-graders has grown to almost 200 students in grades nine through 11.

Though she doesn't think online or blended programs will ever replace the traditional school model, Magennis said it's a valuable option that she would consider for her own children.

"The classroom is a fantastic place for students, but the classroom model doesn't fit everyone's lifestyle. Having options like this is necessary and amazing for students. I'm proud enough that if things turn out differently for my son in high school, I'd put him in this program," she said.


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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated Aug 31, 2012 08:33PM Published Aug 31, 2012 06:10PM Copyright 2012 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.