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School district launches "academies" at three high schools

Linda Satchwell
Staff Writer

Plumas Unified School District launched its "Plumas Academy" in time for the start of the school year. The pilot program was put together over the summer, initially in response to the outcry at Greenville Junior-Senior. High School over the downward spiraling number and scope of course offerings there.

After listening to students, parents and teachers, as well as experiencing a large defection of the junior high student population to the newly formed Indian Valley Academy, the district came up with the academy idea.

Superintendent Glenn Harris held meetings in Greenville, Portola and Chester to gauge community interest in the academy concept. As a result, the Plumas Academy was born.

In its pilot phase, it will serve approximately 20 - 30 students on each of the three campuses, as well as an additional 20 at Quincy High School. The academy is intended to be primarily an online learning alternative.

There will be an academy teacher, who is also the continuation teacher, at each site. Continuation students are included in the program's student numbers, even though they'll meet during a separate three-hour time block.

The program is aimed at a wide range of students, from those in credit recovery to those who can't fit a required or elective class into their schedules, to students who want to take advanced placement courses. Every student will receive a personal learning plan (PLP) negotiated between student and teacher.

The three primary avenues of instruction are two online vendors and a videoconference course. Apex Learning and School Pathways will offer online courses. Apex is accessed directly by the student for instruction, while the School Pathways software is utilized by the academy teacher. The videoconference course in business and finance will be offered during the year.

Apex Learning is a national provider of online learning to school districts. The courses are available online to students for regular and credit recovery courses. Regular Apex courses are expensive - $300 per course - because a "highly qualified" teacher is attached to the course and works with the student online.

Apex's credit recovery courses are less expensive, because the academy teacher acts as the teacher of record for the course.

School Pathways is a local vendor, and its courses cost a fraction of Apex's, because the teacher utilizes them. The software, ReportWriter, allows the teacher to access School Pathways' lesson plans laid out by the week and month for 3,500 student textbooks.

Those courses require significantly more interaction between teacher and student, since presentation comes from the teacher, rather than direct online access by the student. The student's PLP will determine which teaching mode fits a particular student.

Students who are enrolled in academy courses, unless they are independent study students (another option), will sit in the academy classroom for one period a day for each course, just as they would for a traditional class.

In addition, students enrolled in online courses will have progress checks with their academy teachers at least once a week.

According to Terry Oestreich, director of ROP and Alternative Education, this is a work in progress. The idea came up late in the 2009-10 school year, and was developed over the summer.

Primarily, school counselors will identify academy students during the first week of school. Students who receive class schedules and find them lacking may request an academy class.

Others who need credit recovery or advanced placement courses that are not offered on campus may be recommended for the program.

Prospective students must complete a written application and interview with a school counselor to determine if they will thrive in the academy environment: Can they work well independently, and are they computer savvy?

The site teacher reviews the application and interviews the student and parents. If the student meets academy requirements, the teacher will refer the student to the principal for approval.

The teacher monitors the progress of all academy students.

To help students, parents and teachers determine whether it is right for a student, Oestreich has a number of evaluation tools, including a series of questions for the teacher to use during the student/parent interview, as well as in-depth self-evaluations for potential students.

Since the academy is a work in progress, Oestreich expects issues to come up. Officials are emphasizing creative problem solving. "It's really important this year that we nail this," said Oestreich.

Student progress will be carefully monitored. Oestreich has developed a process to help and re-evaluate a student who isn't meeting expectations. As evaluations progress, parents, counselors and administrators become involved.

If a student can't meet the program's strict quality standards, he'll be removed from the program.

Questions regarding Plumas Academy should be directed to Oestreich, at 283-6500, ext. 238, or the student's high school principal.

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