Mesa sixth graders who demonstrate a high ability in math can take an advance course when the school year begins Wednesday – one with a teacher on the other side of a computer screen.
School started last week in the Mesa, Gilbert and Higley unified school districts, as well as the Tempe and Kyrene districts.
For a group of about 100 Mesa students, the school day will include a new “Virtual Academy” class.
The course is for students who are ready to move beyond what’s offered in a typical sixth-grade math class. In the course of one year, the students will complete sixth, seventh and eighth grade without leaving their home school.
The students come from 32 different schools, though it is available to every elementary school. In some cases, when there are enough students at one school to offer the course, it is available with a teacher on-site.
It’s just one of the many new ideas in place this year in the Mesa district it moves to offer more individualized instruction to students through the use of technology.
Last week, the Mesa sixth graders enrolled in Virtual Academy took a few hours out of summer vacation to learn how the class will operate. Each day, at a set time, the students will go either to their home school’s computer lab or to a computer in their classroom and log onto the Internet. Using a web cam that’s been assigned to each of them, they’ll see one of their two instructors – Julianne Johnson or Tracy Hart – ready to give the day’s lesson.
“That regular sixth grade math is going to be so easy for them. This is the track they need to be on the path for advance math, said Sean Enright, Mesa’s curriculum director. “One of the big hooks is students keep progressing.”
For some of these students, by taking three years worth of math in one year, they’ll be ready for algebra in seventh grade and continue on to complete Advance Placement Calculus BC as juniors in high school. That will make them eligible for university level math as seniors.
Before this year, the students “stayed at grade level. Though most are in the gifted and talented program so it was differentiated for them,” he said.
When addressing the students and their parents during training last week, Hart and Johnson reiterated the high level of math the students will be completing.
“The technology is the easy part,” Hart said. “The math is going to be the difficult part.”
While the Hart and Johnson will teach the class “live,” – with one giving the lesson while the other monitors students actions online – the lesson will be archived and available for parents and students to review, said Nathan Myers, the education technology department specialist for the district.
Students will be issued a bag with a web cam, headset and writing tablet. They’ll be expected to take notes, just as in a regular class. But instead of raising their hand, they will click a key on their keyboard to let their teachers know if they have questions.
But it’s still a lot different from what they’re used to.
“Some graduate schools do this so they interact with students,” Enright said. “You can participate in class no matter where you’re at.”
If this proves successful, the district could expand the program next year.
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