Leaders say they are outperforming other online schools.

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Tigard Tualatin Online Academy student Tiffany Aldana works on a computer at the academys headquarters.It has been open for less than two years, but the Tigard-Tualatin Online Academy has already claimed the title as the most successful online school in the state.

Or that’s the claim of the school’s director, Karen Twain.

The school boasts a 75 percent course completion rate, a difficult goal to reach for online schools, which typically struggle in student outcomes.

In fact, Twain said, the school is out-performing some of its top competitors, such as Oregon Connections Academy.

Tigard-Tualatin’s online school opened in February 2012, and was the brainchild of former Tigard-Tualatin Superintendent Rob Saxton, who saw the school as a way to fight back against alternative learning models, such as home school or other online programs which were claiming district students.

At the time, the district estimated that there were about 120 students living in the Tigard-Tualatin boundary but taking online classes outside of the district, and about 200 home-schooled middle schoolers and high schoolers.

The hope was to draw at least some of those students back to the district with a program that would appeal to them.

And appeal it has, the district has about 150 students, Twain said. A third of those are students who were formerly homeschooled or had left the district to take classes elsewhere, but decided to come back to TTOA for school.

“I actually just met with a family who moved into Tigard so that they could come to this program,” said Julia Rhamey, one of the school’s teachers. “That’s the second student that we have had do that.”

Graduation rates for online schools are often lower than their brick-and-mortar counterparts because of the way online schools are organized, Rhamey said.

“It’s like saying you need to do a big pile of dishes,” Rhamey said. “You can do them as fast as you want, but you still have to do them. It’s hard work, and it’s not easy to make yourself do.”

One of online schools’ recruiting tools is the idea that students can work at their own pace, Rhamey said. But while that can be great for motivated students, it can also lead some students to fall behind.

“That’s the challenge,” Rhamey said. “We get a lot of kids who have struggled in other programs and are looking for an alternative because nothing has worked for them. For those students, they don’t have those student skills they need. They don’t manage their time or plan ahead and making that decision to be up by 9 a.m. and do their work until 4 p.m.”

Apples and oranges?

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Tigard Tualatin Online Academy teacher Arielle Cooke works with her class on a lesson about improving study habits.As one of the state’s most well-known online schools, Oregon Connections Academy graduated less than half of its students on time in 2012, compared to TTOA’s 75 percent course completion rate.

“I’m not aware of any other online school that (has) such a high rate,” Twain said.

That number is a bit like comparing apples and oranges, Rhamey admitted, but Rhamey said it’s enough to let them know they are on the right track.

“We are just beginning, so we don’t have real graduation statistics,” Rhamey said. “For a school like ours, where students move back and forth from Tigard High (or Tualatin High) to us, and back again, pinning down a graduation rate is hard to do. But when we look at our course completion rate, that indicates to us that our students are moving toward graduation more than other schools.”

Rhamey equates TTOA’s success to its hybrid approach to online learning.

While students take the majority of their coursework online, they are also required to meet with their teachers and classmates to discuss how classes are going.

“I always work hardest when I have a connection with the teacher, when I really respect the professor and want to do well,” Rhamey said. “It is difficult to create those kinds of relationships through the Internet, but the one-on-one relationship we have here is important and can get them that strong feedback.”

Unlike most online schools, which are often open to students from across the state, TTOA is limited to students that already live in the Tigard-Tualatin area.

Students meet once a week for an in-person meeting with teachers, and can drop into the school’s headquarters in Tualatin to study, work on assignments, or get help anytime.

“That’s our biggest difference from other online schools,” Rhamey said. “Where we stand out is that one-on-one connection and that ability has improved our student outcomes.”

There’s still plenty of room to grow for TTOA, Rhamey said. Tigard High School graduated 81 percent of its students online in 2012. Tualatin High graduated 84 percent.

“It’s a really different way to learn,” Rhamey said. “Students need to be self-motivated and driven, and be able to learn on their own. A lot of it is on the student, which is a unique way to do it.”

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