High School in Pajamas: Inside Insight

It's 7:30 a.m. and 17-year-old Nichole sits down in her grandmother's dining room in Los Angeles to attend high school. But Nichole, whose mother asked that her last name not be used, doesn't sit across the table from a tutor or a family member for her lessons. She sits in front of her computer.

Nichole's homeroom class of 1,400 students in California, Washington State, Oregon and Wisconsin is located on the Internet.

In a world of online social networks and colleges, it should come as no surprise that teenagers can now earn a high school diploma without stepping foot inside a classroom.

"This is a school for kids who need something different, something they can't get in a traditional school," said Keith Oelrich, founder and CEO of Insight Schools, where Nichole is enrolled.

The Birth of an Online School

Insight, which operates as a publicly funded charter school, says it caters to students in a variety of situations -- those who work full time, teens who want to escape peer pressure and teasing, kids with illnesses or disabilities and students who are exceptionally gifted.

Oelrich said the one thing all of his students have in common is that they weren't getting what they wanted out of traditional brick-and-mortar high schools.

"We wanted to reach out to kids [who are] not in school and bring them back into the public school system," Oelrich said.

Insight offers 130 different courses ranging from honors and advanced placement classes to foundation-level courses. The per pupil expenditure for its Washington branch is about $4,500 a year, which is less than the state's $8,692 average for the 2006-07 school year.

Nichole attended private school for most of her life, including her freshman year of high school. When her parents could no longer afford to send her to private school, Nichole transferred to a public school.

"A lot of kids got opportunities thrown at their feet and they didn't even care," Nicole said. "I didn't want to graduate from there."

So, Nichole took a chance on Insight. "Would I rather go to a school that makes me miserable or try something new?" Nichole asked. "I didn't have much to lose."

But some traditional educators worry about online-based secondary education.

"It's not a replacement for brick-and-mortar schools," said Rob Weil, development director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers.

"Online education can help in tough situations," Weil added. "It's a tool, but it's not a complete tool box."

Socialization Concerns

Traditional schools offer valuable opportunities for students to connect face to face and define who they are as people. Who doesn't remember going to a school basketball game or perhaps getting picked on by the school bully?

"If online learning comes at the detriment of students interacting with their peers and having a sense of who they are, then I could see some disadvantage," said Sheri Mural of Admissions Consultants, a college admissions counseling company.

Nichole chooses to keep her social life active. She's a cheerleader at a nearby high school and was even crowned homecoming queen. Nichole said it has been easy to stay in touch with her friends who go to traditional schools.

"If you don't want the high school experience you don't have to have it, but if you want it, you're not cut off from the rest of the world," Nichole said. "I haven't missed out on much."

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