David Teall teaches an advanced placement class at Start High School that is transmitted to other schools in the Toledo Public Schools system. The distance-learning labs are in their first semester.
Just two students joined David Teall in his Start High School room, yet the Advanced Placement English teacher's class began to fill.
A Woodward student, first hidden off-screen from a flat-screen TV, moved in front of a camera. A handful of students at Waite greeted their teacher.
"Who's absent at Bowsher?" Mr. Teall asked.
A student in the South Detroit Avenue building pushed an intercom to respond. An image of the Bowsher class, once small on a flat-screen TV, expanded as she replied.
"No one!" she said.
Each of the six high schools in Toledo Public Schools now are equipped with high-tech rooms called distance learning labs. Projectors and TVs line the walls, and intercoms are in front of each student. A teacher from one site transmits to up to five others.
When the district rolled out distance labs this summer, administrators cited the program's ability to cheaply boost upper-level course offerings. One Woodward student isn't enough for a class; 20 students at four schools makes financial sense.
Waite or Woodward would not have had Advanced Placement English without the new program.
A semester is too soon to judge a new program. But there are early indicators of both the program's potential and of the difficulties faced as the district rolls out an unusual public school concept.
Seniors Michaela Isbell, left, and Jalyn Jones, right, participate in a lesson during an AP English distance learning class which is transmitted from Start High School with one teacher to all six high schools. The program is part of the TPS transformation plan that broadens the district's upper level course offerings in a low cost format.
So far, 144 students have enrolled in the distance classes, which include Advanced Placement European History, Advanced Placement Calculus, Russian, and Chinese, among others.
Although each school is not represented in every class -- no Rogers or Scott students were in Mr. Teall's -- students at all six high schools use the labs for at least one course.
Mr. Teall, who also teaches traditional English classes at Start, said he adjusted his syllabus for distance classes, using shorter writing assignments compared to long-term projects so he can give students frequent feedback.
Without students physically in the room, interaction is limited. Mr. Teall said he's had to alter his technique to fit the format, but it's made him a better teacher.
"Really, other than the obvious physical and logistical limitations," he said, "it's not that much different than another class."
There's only so much a teacher can catch when he's monitoring four sites with about 20 total students. Paraprofessionals are in each room, but the system still has kinks.
A Waite student played with her cell phone throughout class, without the paraprofessional's intervention.
Assistant Superintendent Brian Murphy said the program is a work in progress. Teachers are adjusting instruction, and the district is learning which classes work better.
But so far, the labs have been a success and interest in the classes is growing.
"What is definitely happening is we have more kids in these classes from school that would not have had these opportunities in the past," Mr. Murphy said.
Jalyn Jones from Start said she prefers the distance lab format to other classes, in part because she can see how students in other TPS schools learn and interact, and because the program created smaller class sizes.
"There's only three of us," she said. "We get better one-on-one attention."
Upgrades are planned next semester, Mr. Murphy said, when each student will have a laptop and software that allows teachers to communicate with them individually. New courses are expected for next year. And officials from regional schools have inquired about setting up their own labs, with instruction provided by Toledo teachers.
Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6086.
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