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Best in Tech 2009: Six Online Programs Districts Can't Be Without

We asked our expert reviewers to choose one online program that they would suggest to other educators for use in their districts, and specified that it needed to be a program they couldn't be without. There was no hesitation in their responses. There are plenty of great online products out there, so which would you choose?

By Ken Royal | September/October 2009

Apex Learning
Mary Ellen Wilson
Assistant Superintendent
Loveland (OH) Schools
4,800 students

Problem: We had been using an online program for credit recovery but found several problems with it. It had an unappealing interface, and was not accessible to students outside the school day. The students generally disliked it, and weren’t motivated to use it.

Goal: In addition to finding a replacement program for credit recovery, we were looking to expand online learning opportunities for acceleration and intervention, our alternative program, and summer school. We have more and more students who want to complete courses online.

Response: Students who have used both Apex and our previous program are thrilled with the switch. Because Apex is Web-based, students can access it at home, giving them more flexibility and control over their learning options. Teachers and students like that Apex offers a greater range of curricular offerings.

Lesson(s) Learned
: The right program can make all the difference. Students are more engaged with Apex than they were with its predecessor, and they like that information is presented in multiple ways: text, audio, video, and images.
Usage: Currently we are using Apex Learning for credit recovery, independent studies, and Advanced Placement (AP) courses not available through our high school, as well as in our alternative school.

Learning Curve: We have two full days of training. An Apex trainer works with our teachers to set up and use the program. We use the second day to train teachers new to Apex, or go into more detail with current users.

Future: Since Apex runs the gamut from intervention to AP courses, we want to use it to its fullest. We hope to expand our use of Apex Learning to provide enrichment opportunities for our younger students.

Cost: $12,500 per 100 student slots

Bottom line: Apex Learning is a good fit for our district. We have increased options for students by using this digital curriculum.

Dr. Dana T. Bedden
Richmond County (GA) School System
32,000 students

Problem: RCSS needed a way to communicate with parents, students, educators, and the community in a timely manner. We also needed a solution that would allow collaboration between the students, teachers, principals, and other stakeholders. We needed to utilize Web-based tools for our students to stay abreast of trends in technology.

Goal: The mission of the RCSS is to educate students to become lifelong learners and productive citizens. We want our students to be prepared for the future, and the life that they will face when they leave the Richmond County School System. It is important for them to learn how to use e-mail, blog, and use discussion boards within a safe environment.

Response: eChalk is a comprehensive tool that provides websites for districts and schools. There are teacher pages with calendars, announcements, and resources for parents to be kept in the loop of their child’s learning. There is file storage and sharing that all educators can utilize to get needed information. The website provides a public view and a private view. The private view allows us specify exactly which users have rights to things such as special education forms and tribunal information. Our students can also use the e-mail, blog, and discussion areas in a safe network. Finally, we can communicate with the community. We can recognize our sponsors and partners. Through our system homepage, we can show the exciting things going on within the system.

Lesson(s) Learned: As with other software products, eChalk had some quirks in the beginning. The nice thing about this company is the willingness to work through the problems. The customer support is excellent. Each release brings about a resolution to issues and a commitment to honor suggestions.

Usage: eChalk is used daily. Our analytical reports show how much our homepage is utilized. We also know which pages get the most “hits” and we can make changes accordingly. We use the survey tools often—from textbook voting to public opinion. The pages are used for communication and collaboration. We can add audio and video files to the pages. The system supports many formats, such as Flash, Windows Movie Maker files, and Quicktime.

Learning Curve: The support is phenomenal. The training sessions are customized for the needs of the system. eChalk is willing to work with our system to integrate the website with other technologies. There was nothing to install and the pages are very user-friendly and easy to create.

Future: There will be an upcoming release of eChalk, which will allow our users to have more flexibility in design. We are looking forward to the added levels of creativity while keeping a consistency throughout the system.

Cost: Approximately $221,000, but now 94 percent e-rateable.

Bottom line: A powerful web solution.

Gary Lewis
Lawrence (KS) Virtual Charter School, Lawrence USD 497
1,125 K–8 students

Problem: Our goal at LVS was to provide an exceptional education to students in the state of Kansas for which the traditional education system does not work. This would include students who may need acceleration, or who may not be able to keep up in the traditional setting.

Goal: Our goal is to continue to show that an online educational model can and does work very well.

Response: I have been extremely pleased with the K12 curriculum. It has exceeded my expectations at all levels (product, service, guidance, delivery). It has provided a single source solution that has allowed for Lawrence Virtual School to be successful for the past five years.

Lesson(s) Learned: Don't reinevent what has already been invented. The Lawrence school district had initially proposed that they would hire curriculum writers and develop their own online curriculum. It didn't take long for them to realize that they did not have the people, expertise, or knowledge to create exceptional online courses for K¬–8 students. K12 has provided us with the curricular resources needed to provide the total education system we desired.

Usage: Our school uses the K12 curriculum 24/7/365. The fact that we can deliver lessons each day to meet the individual needs of students is something that is impossible in other settings. We can easily tailor learning to each unique individual student.

Learning Curve: K12 offers 24-hour customer support as well as online professional development (synchronous and asynchronous) to help us be successful. This is a Web-based curriculum that requires no setup for the school or student. K12 sets up the user accounts so that all that needs to happen is for the user to log in, participate in orientation, and get started.

Future: Lawrence Virtual School continues to grow each year, and we pride ourselves in being the best in K–8 virtual education in the state of Kansas. We will continue this. Without our partnership with K12, we could not have earned this recognition.  

Cost: LVS spends—on average—$4,300 per full-time pupil to operate our school. This includes all staffing, K12 curriculum/materials, operations, etc.

Bottom line: K12 is a turnkey solution to providing an exceptional K–12 virtual education.
Margie Johnson
Title IID Coordinator, District Level
Metropolitan Nashville (TN) Public Schools
76,000 students

Problem: We wanted to maximize teacher time, so they could provide the best possible instruction to our students.

Goal: We needed a user-friendly tool for finding the best instructional resources available on the Web, and tied to our standards, netTrekker was our choice. It includes features such as ELL links, HotMath, read-aloud, readability levels, and 21st-century skills.

Response: Our users love the product as evident by the over 2.4 million hits that we had last year. I asked one of our librarians, whose school had the most hits, what her strategy was. She mentioned that teachers were coming to her wanting to do research, because of netTrekker. Furthermore, through a newsletter to parents, she discovered they are using netTrekker at home with their children.

Lesson(s) Learned: As with any instructional technology implementation, it takes time to communicate and to train everyone. However, because netTrekker is so user-friendly, it didn’t take as long as other implementations. Librarians are a great resource for implementing netTrekker throughout the district.

Usage: Teachers use it to find instructional resources for teaching standards and for differentiating instruction.

Learning Curve: A minimum of one-hour for an introduction to the website; then teachers need time to fully investigate it; tech support is available. On the rare occasion that we had an issue, it was resolved within an hour. Nettrekker integrates with Weekly Reader, HotMath, Promethean, and Brain Pop.
Future: We still have a few schools that do not use it on a daily basis. We hope to get them going this year. Also, we are looking at moving to student virtual classes and these resources would be a great benefit to that program.
Cost: About $1.00 per student

Bottom line: You get your more than your money’s worth for providing high-quality instruction for all students.

Pearson PowerSchool and Inform
Ted Lindquist
Technology Coordinator
Farmington (CT) Public Schools
4,250 students

Problem: We wanted an organized and systemic data system that allowed teachers to spend more time instructing and less time recording data for the various programs. We had 14 databases that did not speak to each other, and housed a wide variety of demographic and academic data. Much of the data was on spreadsheets held by individual teachers. Teachers, administrators, program leaders were frustrated by the time lost from designing effective instruction.

Goal: Create a systemic and organized data system that housed demographic, program, and academic data for all students that could be shared horizontally and vertically within the school system. Engage teachers in the examining of data for instructional design purposes. Focus our instruction on targeted students and proven instructional strategies.

Response: The use of PowerSchool and Inform has transformed the way we use data in the Farmington Public Schools. Teachers input formative and summative assessment information and the data are immediately available to those who have permission to view that data. The Gradebook feature allows students and parents to view quizzes, tests, and other grades through the parent portal increasing the conversation between student and parent regarding a student's academic performance. We have designed PowerSchool to fit our district's assessment program across the board: our standards, our language, and our formats. In conjunction with Inform, we can examine performance in a wide variety of ways: by demographic information, program information, and intervention strategies.

Lesson(s) Learned: Together, these programs have deepened the discussion on focused interventions for students in need, and have assisted us in creating an urgency for those students.

Usage: PowerSchool is used daily by all people in the Farmington Public Schools. From secretaries to tutors to teachers to administrators, the program serves a wide variety of needs from the simple demographic information to the more complicated assessment data. We use PowerSchool to interface with a wide variety of other programs: transportation, health, library, point-of-sale, and emergency notification system so that all systems are up-to-date with new student information on a daily basis.

Learning Curve: For secretaries who do scheduling, training took one day. Trainging K–5 teachers was done by memo, some high school teachers selected a 1.5 -hour grade-book training.

Future: As we become more adept at using data to improve instruction, PowerSchool and Inform will adapt and grow with us.

Cost: Pricing varies due to district needs

Bottom line: It allows our professional staff to spend their time planning for instruction, teaching children, and increasing student achievement and performance.

PublicSchoolWORKS EmployeeSafe and StudentWatch Suites
Stephanie Armbruster
Coordinator of Human Resources
Dublin (OH) City Schools
13,800 students

Problem: How to effectively and efficiently provide regulatory compliance training to every staff member.

Goal: To be compliant with all mandatory required training that the district is responsible to provide. We also wanted to provide a consistent way for all district buildings to report fire, lockdowns, and tornado drills. Also, we needed to provide a more efficient way of reporting staff accidents, and to be compliant with OSHA requirements.

Response: Initially, staff members were not comfortable with the change in delivery of mandatory training. However, as they became familiar with the process, staff appreciated that they did not have to use staff meeting time for this required training.
Lesson(s) Learned: One of the most important issues for us was knowing that there was a solid support system in place for any questions or concerns in implementing and using the program.
Usage: For regulatory, compliance training, required drill reporting, and staff/student accident reporting. Once we provided staff names and e-mail addresses to PSW, we were ready to use the program. The system is very user-friendly in adding or deleting employee names from the system. A phone call to PSW answers any additional questions.

Learning Curve: We provided direct training to all our building administrators who, in turn, passed on the training to staff members. We also provided direct training to all our school nurses and clinic aides for reporting employee and student accidents.

Future: We hope to expand our usage of the student behavior management program in the near future.
Cost: Available on request, based on the number of staff and/or students.
Bottom line: We have been very pleased with the ongoing support regarding the compliance side of PSW, and we’re looking at adding student behavior management.

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