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Students who are most successful at online learning are motivated self-starters

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - The Gebhardt twins work in the computer lab at the online school Metro East Web Academy. Going to school online sounds like a dream for a lot of students. You can do your school work in your sweats, when you feel like it, accommodating a job, a late night playing video games, or other personal needs.

But students at Metro East Web Academy, Gresham's online public charter school, say self-motivated students with strong self-discipline are the most likely to succeed with online education.

"You have to be pretty self-disciplined and have to be able to advocate for yourself," said Emma Gebhardt, 16, who attends MEWA with her twin sister Haley.

Emma explains that smart kids who struggle in a regular school environment with large class sizes and big schools often find MEWA a good fit.

There has been an explosive growth in K-12 students going to school online. In the 2002-03 school year, 317,070 students were taking classes remotely, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. By 2009-10, that number had grown to 1.8 million, the most recent statistics located.

Metro East Web Academy is sponsored by the Gresham-Barlow School District and is one of 13 online K-12 schools in Oregon. MEWA will have about 600 students in grades kindergarten through high school this fall.

The Gebhardt twins' mom, Tonia Gebhart, is the elementary principal and chief operating officer at MEWA and agrees with her daughters' assessment of who does well in an online school.

"Really it's about being a self-starter," Tonia Gebhart said.

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - Alexis Lugo has attended MEWA since the sixth grade and counts her photography class as her favorite. But, Gebhart emphasizes MEWA supports students if they need it and three students interviewed say they get plenty of help from teachers if they have questions or are confused.

Tonia Gebhart also said students who are "not being served in the traditional school setting" are attracted to MEWA.

Some students have trouble in a large school or crowded classroom. Some have anxiety or other issues. Some are looking for more individualized attention than they can get in a traditional brick and mortar school.

Alexis Lugo, 16, entering 11th grade, has attended MEWA since sixth grade.

Lugo said, "elementary school wasn't my best and my mom and I decided to look at online school."

MEWA turned out to be a great fit for Lugo.

"I like it really a lot. It was easier for me to do. I get to work on my own and teach myself what to do for classes," the Gresham resident said.

Lugo said she comes to MEWA's Civic Neighborhood every two weeks or so, depending on how much help she needs from a teacher.

Lugo especially loves her photography classes at MEWA.

Haley and Emma Gebhardt, both entering 11th grade, admit having their mom work at the school made it an easy choice for them. But Emma added, "it seemed like a better fit for us."

Both twins will be attending Mt. Hood Community College full time in the fall through the school's early college program.

Emma likes the flexibility of working at her own pace and when she wants with the MEWA programs.

One rap against online school is that it is isolating for students, since they don't show up every day and make friends on the playground or gossip around their lockers.

But, the three students say there are enough opportunities to socialize with other students.

Lugo said MEWA has clubs and field trips so kids can spend time with other students.

Haley Gebhart also said that students can go back to their "home" school and take part in activities such as band, or prom. But she also admits "the social aspect is a challenge."

Still MEWA works for a lot of students.

"Our online draw is flexibility," Tonia Gebhart said.

Students can work at their own pace and on their own time. For example, if a student works at a paid job, they can do their school work around their work hours.

"Students can accelerate their learning if they want," Tonia Gebhart said.

All students are tested when they enroll and placed in classes that are appropriate to their skill level.

She explains that students need not be embarrassed in front of others if they are lagging behind in classes. Students can study at their own level and catch up.

The reverse is also true. Students reading or doing math well above grade level can take classes that challenge them and are not suck in a specific grade classroom.

In addition to the early college program, MEWA has other specialized program such as a "credit recovery" program for students who are missing high school credits because they didn't go to class or failed classes. MEWA also has a program to award GEDs to students who did not graduate from high school.

Students that thrive in MEWA's regular online school are the ones that have the resolve and interest to get their work done on time and do a good job.

Said Haley Gebhardt: "The ones that do well have the self-motivation and self-discipline to do the work."

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