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."

Some like Weil of the American Federation of Teachers stress caution, pointing to the need for students to communicate about high school itself.

"Everybody talks about their favorite teachers and those kinds of things can't be replicated online," Weil said. "Educationally, you can hit some of the academics, but I'm not convinced it can replace a teacher in a classroom."

Insight said it offers students the opportunity to organize clubs inside the school's password-protected infrastructure. Students can chat with each other on discussion threads as well. Teachers hold virtual classroom sessions three times a week, and academic tutoring support is available to students 24/7. The school also holds traveling PTA meetings in each state, as well as proms and graduation ceremonies.

The Teachers

Educators at Insight, which is owned by the University of Phoenix, say there are many perks to online teaching.

"It's been a dream come true," said Racquel Hernandez, a math teacher at Insight's Washington and California schools.

Hernandez spent 17 years as a public school teacher before entering the world of online education. Teaching online allows her to spend time with her daughter and still work with students.

"I still get that professional stimulation as a teacher plus the satisfaction of being a full-time mom," she said.

A teacher working full time at an Insight school earns about the average of the salary scale for teachers in their respective states. Plus, Insight says it offers a variety of benefits to its staff.

Unlike most public school teachers, however, those who work for Insight aren't unionized, and Weil of the teachers' union has a problem with that.

"All teachers should be represented and have their voice heard." he said. "They are the most important part of the school structure."

A Growing Movement

Insight's Oelrich said the school is about to start an aggressive campaign to open in several other states. He said Insight is scrambling to keep up with demand.

"Schools are embracing online learning and will continue to embrace online learning," he said. "We're just at the very beginning of meeting a tremendous need out there that isn't being served."

Insight strives to accept and enroll as many students as possible, but operational constraints sometimes limit the number that can be admitted.

Insight's Washington school received more than 3,000 applications last year. Admissions Consultants' Mural said lots of schools are moving toward online-based programs.

Math teacher Hernandez appreciates the growth.

"Technology has slowed the pace of life down for these students," Hernandez said. "I have parents saying 'thank you for getting these kids back home.'"

As for Nichole, after she she finishes her course work at Insight, she intends to earn a cosmetology degree. Then, with some experience under her belt, Nichole aspires to work in cosmetic advertising.

"I want to learn the field first," she said, "and then take over."