Program offers second chance

Cyber school gives students an alternative to the classroom

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— Eight months ago, Adam Tilley was kicked out of Steamboat Springs High School, marking the end of two turbulent years at the school.

His relationship with his parents had deteriorated, and at 15 years old, he moved out.

A week later, when his mom picked him up from jail, Tilley came to a realization.

"I decided I needed something new, to get a fresh start," he said. "I came back this year totally changed, ready to learn and ready to work."

But there was a problem: Steamboat Springs High School didn't want him back.

Through a friend, Tilley heard about an online high school program offered through the Hayden School District.

The Hayden cyber school program was developed in 2001 to address the needs of students who weren't performing well in a traditional public school setting, Hayden Superintendent Scott Mader said.

"We felt like we were getting too many students who weren't performing well," Mader said. "Our drop-out rate was too high and we decided we needed to do something for these kids."

"School settings haven't been real positive for a lot of these kids," Mader said. "With a cyber school, (students) don't really have to get up and get to class and deal with too many different personalities."

Backed by a $38,000 grant designed to help at-risk and expelled students, the program was beefed up this year to include two part-time instructors. The district is funding $13,000 of the program this year.

Increased personal contact with cyber school students has improved the program, which now has 18 part-time students and 10 full-time students.

"I think the main thing we've done is kept it small and personal for these kids," Mader said. "You can't just give them a computer and say 'do the work.' You've got to spend some time with them. Some cyber schools don't have that kind of contact, and I think it's essential."

Although the Hayden School District sponsors the cyber school, its student body hails from all over. Four students live in Steamboat Springs, four live in Craig, one moved to Denver and one lives in Hayden. All are enrolled in the Hayden School District.

Prospective cyber school students go through an interview process that involves an application and a sit-down interview. Writing samples used to evaluate a student's thought process.

If accepted, students take a couple of preliminary tests to determine what level of curriculum they should begin with.

PLATO software is the backbone of the program. Students must log on to the PLATO system, and the amount of time they spend working through curriculum, as well as their progress, is tracked and available to the cyber school's two instructors, or facilitators.

Most full-time students spend an average of 10 to 20 hours each week on the PLATO system, cyber school instructor Paul Van Horn said.

Van Horn often travels to Craig and Steamboat to meet with students who are not keeping up with their work, and he is available for those who need tutoring.

For students such as Tilley, the cyber school has provided a second opportunity to earn a high school diploma.

"I'm definitely catching up," said Tilley, who does all of his work from his parent's computer. "My attitude has totally changed. When I was in high school I didn't like being subjected to authority. I was getting angry, I was getting frustrated. Everything in my life has changed since January."

And as the cyber school has helped Tilley turn his life around, it has also helped improve his relationship with his parents.

"Now he'll sit down and talk with us about his day," said Connie Tilley, Adam's mother. "It's definitely an awesome turnaround."

Connie Tilley wasn't always so positive about the cyber school program.

"I was a little reluctant at first," she said. "But he was not doing well, and anything else was an option at that point. These guys are bending over backwards to help him."

However, not all cyber school students have enjoyed success like Tilley has.

"I wish we could say it's been successful for everybody," said Maggie Berglund, Van Horn's fellow cyber school instructor. "We've lost students, but when I hear about other programs like this, our drop-out rate is much less."

Berglund and Van Horn are working hard to further expand the program for future years. Van Horn, whose background is in outdoor education, would like to incorporate more recreational activities into the program.

Currently, he meets some of the students at area rock climbing gyms once a week.

"We want to provide opportunities above and beyond sitting behind a computer," Van Horn said. "The program right now is really in its infancy."

Van Horn and Berglund would also like to see community service and paid employment worked into the program to provide students additional opportunities to earn credits.

"We're really interested in making this different from all the other cyber schools out there," Van Horn said. "There are a lot of interesting things (we could do). You don't want kids to drop out. You want them to get a diploma so they have a shot."

"Most of these kids are here by choice," Van Horn said. "I have a lot of respect for them. Most of them have really struggled, but they haven't given up. It's a really big deal that these kids are sticking with it."

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