Online classes help high school students graduate

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Wesley Chapel High Student Rafael Ferrer is like the rest of his senior class - working towards his diploma. But he's taking a bit of a non-traditional route.

While he's inside a classroom, he's facing a laptop instead of a teacher. Ferrer takes his classes online.

"It's just like a normal class. If anything, it's kind of harder because it's online. Most of the stuff they generate for the quizzes isn't the same thing everyone is taking in the classroom," said Ferrer.

Even though he's focused on the screen in front of him, there's a teacher around to help.

"As you progress, you're going to need the teacher to unlock things for you. She unlocks the next chapter for your test or your quiz," explained Ferrer.

For him, this has been a way of getting back on track with his education and making up lost credits.

"I was going through some family things and couldn't get to school. I was in trouble situations where it was stopping me from pursuing my education to a point where I had a job. At one point I was working 9-5, 40 hours a week.  I wasn't even going to school," said Ferrer.

"We're able to provide an opportunity with our students that have made mistakes, that are now ready to change those mistakes and are ready to graduate and it's just, once again, that we're able to give that hope to kids that didn't have it and didn't know any other way to graduate," said Wesley Chapel High Assistant Principal Kelly McPherson.

The school started this program last year.

"We pulled our data to find our students that were off track last year, that were in danger of not graduating and we met with them and their parents and then we started the program," said McPherson.

And it's been successful.

"Of the 19 seniors we enrolled in [the program], 18 did graduate, so that was really exciting," said McPherson.

Dr. James Hatten is a USF professor who specializes in this kind of education. He emphasizes that this track to a diploma is not easier than a regular classroom.

"People think wrongly that an online course is easier to take for a student. Often times it's more difficult for a student because there's no way to hide in an online course. There's no way to not participate. You either have to be active or you're not active," said Dr. Hatten.

In Ferrer's classroom, cell phones are put away.

"They're more focused to getting us to working here than in classes. In class, I feel like you can fool around a little bit more but here it's serious. It's all business here," said Ferrer.

"The outcome is what matters. Students are getting their diploma,  they're graduating and they may be doing it because they are going to a different system that is better than their learning style", said Dr. Hatten.

For Ferrer, this program, which is also known as Support Our Students, or SOS, has given him a new sense of confidence and purpose as he moves towards his future.

"SOS isn't bad. It's actually like, it's saving you. It's SOS exactly what it stands for. It's saving you," said Ferrer.

The Florida Department of Education has information for parents about virtual education.

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