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Students Start Online Courses in 8 Local School Districts

Four new courses are being offered by Putnam-Northern Westchester BOCES through a regional consortium that shares resources and teachers.

Darcy Samuelson wanted to study physics but she already had a full day of classes scheduled. She found a way to fit it in—but she won’t be sitting in class.

She joins 60 other students who are taking courses online through a regional consortium of eight school districts in partnership with Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES Curriculum Center. Participating districts include Bedford, Chappaqua, Katonah-Lewisboro, Lakeland, Mamaroneck, Ossining, Peekskill and Yorktown.

They met on Thursday for an in-person orientation with teachers and site coordinators, one of a handful of times the group actually meets face-to-face this year.

Students enrolled now have access to courses not currently available at their home school and can interact with students they wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to meet, said Drew Patrick, assistant superintendent of curriculum for Bedford Central Schools.

“It’s an opportunity to share best practices among teachers, but also for the students to understand what each brings to the table, how are skill sets and knowledge different from theirs,” he said. “If they’re going to solve 21st century problems—that we and generations before us created—they’re going to need to know how to work together.”

The courses are part of a growing national trend toward increased online offerings, according to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning. The advocacy group reports that 38 states have virtual schools or online initiatives and cites a 17 percent annual growth rate in the preK - 12 market in the online learning industry.

Plans are already underway to double the size of the program the region next year, according to Diana Cunningham, an educational consultant to BOCES, who to develop the curriculum, along with Sarah Martabano, regional coordinator of distance education at the Lower Hudson Regional Information Center.

On Thursday, they came together for the first time with their students to learn about their course content, set goals, become familiar with the virtual classroom environment, called Blackboard, and to get to know one another.

Click on the video for more student and teacher interviews at the orientation program.

 “We had a day to build a mini-community in each of those classes,” said Marla Gardner, Director of Curriculum and Instruction at BOCES.

“We put kids together doing physical challenges as a super-icebreaker—as a way to connect, so that they laugh, talk, problem-solve together, so when they go back online they’ll remember each other and know, ‘these are my classmates.’”

To be eligible for enrollment, students needed to be on track for graduation and able to pursue independent learning, said Patrick. On-site coordinators will help keep students on track, meeting with them weekly and monitoring their progress. “Students can decide whether they want to work early in the morning, late at night, or during a free period at school—that flexibility is built in.”

The four courses are:

  • Wanted: Solutions to Problems of the 21st Century, Needed: More Than Just Good Ideas, taught by Stephen Walker and Bob Oddo, Horace Greeley High School
  • Take Action! Support a Sustainable Community, taught by Christopher DeMattia, Fox Lane High School
  • Environmental Physics: A Citizen's Guide to the Planet, taught by David Gewanter and Jim Panzer, John Jay High School
  • Making a Lasting Impression: Architecture Across the Centuries and Today, taught by Nick Cucchiarella, Mamaroneck High School

The challenge will not be to get students online, said Jim Panzer, who is teaching the Environmental Physics course, but to encourage quality discussion.

“This generation is always connected online—it’s the Facebook generation. A lot of their learning will be in how we respond to each other,” he said. Students received guidelines and a rubric on Thursday about how to write quality posts, which will be part of their grade.

Students will have fewer tests and quizzes, and will instead be judged by their participation in online discussions, assignments and more complex projects, said Cunningham. “The assessment is ongoing and constant and happening in lots of different ways, and in any good classroom—whether it’s brick and mortar or online—that’s what it looks like,” she said.

And will these types of courses change the face of local schools?

“Well, it makes the high school more adaptive, more flexible,” said Panzer. “This takes students to the 21st century and has potential to grow and change everything. It expands their world a bit more beyond their home high school.”

Patrick said the virtual learning would not replace what exists, but it would give students exposure to an environment they need to be familiar with. “And we’re creating a sandbox in the region to figure out what will work for high school kids,” he said.

For Darcy Samuelson, that was a compelling reason to take part.

“This has real-world applications,” she said. “It’s going to help having this knowledge.”

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