'Cyber High' enjoys success

Tuesday, October 10th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

FRESNO, Calif. – Brandon Snyder admits he never did his math homework. Alyson Dalke says she's pretty smart but lazy. Stella Mao wants to graduate early.

The three Roosevelt High School seniors sat down at computers and solved their problems by going to "Cyber High," an experimental program being tried in California as a model for the nation.

The online-learning program, under development over five years with a $2.8 million federal grant, is aimed at helping migrant students and other students who need more education and access to technology than they are getting.

"We believe that Cyber High indeed levels the playing field and brings down the digital divide," said Guido Prambs, who directs the state program and is based in the Fresno County Office of Education. "Cyber High brings to the poor and disadvantaged what other schools already have big-time."

Cyber High has its roots in a 22-year-old California program aimed at helping migrant teens finish high school despite frequent moves.

PASS, or Portable Assisted Study Sequence, began in California in 1978 to address dropout problems among migrant teens. It is funded with $900,000 a year in federal money and is now used in 30 other states.

PASS consists of standardized high school courses, each broken into five units and taken using paper and pencil.

The typical migrant teen is two years behind in high school credits, said Mr. Prambs, who also oversees PASS for the state. If a student tried to take a regular high school course, the family might move before it ended and the student would get no credit.

Instead, he or she can take a PASS course at one of the 260 participating high schools in the state. There is no deadline to complete the course and the student can progress at his or her own pace. When the student finishes one of the five units, that credit is sent to the PASS office in Fresno.

Under an agreement with the Fresno Unified School District, Roosevelt High School officially grants the credits to the student.

Then, when the student's family moves to another town, the student can continue the same course at a different school. The PASS office keeps the student's records in its central database.

About 8,000 students a year have been taking PASS courses in California, Prambs said.

Cyber High takes the PASS courses a step further to provide not only high school credits but also computer skills valuable for jobs.

Developers spent the first three years writing special Cyber High courses that they tried out last year at nine high schools around the state. This year, the fourth year of the grant, they are offering the 14 courses they currently have to 30 high schools.

They hired "Web authors," teachers with computer skills, to design the courses. Instead of just putting the old PASS courses onto a computer, they wrote new courses that use the power of computers and the Internet.

For example, a student studying the sound unit in physical science is given Internet links to university Web pages showing the workings of the ear and may also be shown a video of an orchestra.

"You just can't compare a black-and-white paper system with video and multimedia," said Carol Lopez, Cyber High's curriculum coordinator.

"It's so much more stimulating and dynamic."

The courses are designed to be overseen by a teacher. The computer scores some multiple-choice quizzes, but a teacher must grade most assignments and tests, particularly the many writing assignments.

After the program spreads in California, it will start in Florida and New York, Mr. Prambs said.

U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley visited the program last spring and called it the "next step in the technology revolution."

Each of the nine pilot high schools chose the kind of students they wanted to try the new courses.

Roosevelt, a 3,500-student school in downtown Fresno, targeted juniors and seniors who were behind in credits.

Ms. Dalke, 17, made up English credits last spring and is taking more Cyber High courses this year, in addition to her regular schedule, so she can graduate on time next spring.

"I got lazy and Cyber High was there for me," she said.

Mr. Snyder, 17, had flunked math and was ineligible for football. He said he liked the pre-algebra course that he completed to be able to play sports again.

"You didn't have to worry about the teacher getting ahead of you because you could go back," he said.

Ms. Mao, 16, took physical science and English courses so she can graduate a year early. She liked zipping through the courses.

None of the three is in a migrant family.

Their teacher, Rudy Torres, said the self-paced Cyber High courses work for students at both ends of the spectrum – those who want to zoom ahead and those who need to catch up.

The program is exploring working with Mexican education officials on standardizing the two nations' requirements so migrant students whose parents travel between the two countries could keep up their schooling.