A month into the school year, some Community Unit School District 200 students are doing more than just their homework outside of school.
This semester the district began its Expanded Learning Opportunities, or eLo, program, featuring 12 sections of eight online classes.
District 200 and its two partner districts, Naperville Community Unit School District 203 and Indian Prairie School District 204, have enrolled more than 200 students in the program, according to consortium Director of Digital Learning Kip Pygman.
"Everyone has the same end goal in mind," said Pygman, a former teacher and digital learning specialist. "We all want to do what's best for the kids – that has always been at the forefront."
Debra Hardin, a math, business and English as a second language teacher at Wheaton Warrenville South High School, said she jumped at the chance to become one of the first to teach in the program because it was the "way of the future."
"I've taken a number of classes myself online, college classes, and they were not easy," she said. "They were difficult, actually. Not that I wanted to have a difficult experience for the kids – I want them to have an experience and prepare them for the 21st century."
Preparing students for life beyond high school, particularly in college and in their career, is a big driver for the shift towards online classrooms within the consortium, Pygman said.
But the move behind computer screens doesn't mean transitioning away from student-teacher interaction, said Faith Dahlquist, the district's assistant superintendent for educational services.
Pygman said the program's Mandarin teacher has weekly one-on-one meetings with her students to check their progress and Hardin said her class has had a lot of discussion through online resources.
Dahlquist said the classes were all designed to have the same rigor as classes in any of the three districts. The freedom of working outside a classroom environment offers a huge amount of personalization for both students and teachers and allows them to be "in the driver's seat," Pygman said.
But that freedom comes with a higher need for self-discipline, he said.
"Kids have really found out what their strengths are by taking this class," Hardin said. "The parents have gotten very involved and are helping their kids and have been great about learning about what's going on and encouraging their students to stay on track. It's been a really great experience for the kids ... [but] it's all going to depend on the student."
Pygman said high school is the perfect time to learn those skills and that he plans on implementing further layers of support for the students in the coming years. Currently, all students must complete an orientation before the class informing them what will be expected of them.
There have been some students who have left the program so far this year, Pygman said, and he acknowledged that the enrollment numbers were a little low.
Dahlquist said some of that was due to late implementation, as the classes were only a part of the course selection after the last round of registration. The eLo committee will be meeting this month to discuss other classes that could be added next year, she said. Any new classes will be driven by student demand, Pygman said.
The model has proven to be a popular one: Pygman said several districts have already asked to join the consortium, though he said they were not looking to add any for the 2015-16 school year.
Pygman said the reason so many were interested was because the district was using its own teachers and curriculum.
"The teachers are at the heart of all this," he said. "We're just leveraging the skill sets and passions of the teachers that are within the consortium ... they are courses taught by the taxpayer's own teachers."