Online Education Doesn’t Have to Be Isolating

This pioneering high school in the Bronx is proving it.

Kellan Jett

This article is part of the Big Shortcut, an eight-part series exploring the exponential rise in online learning for high school students who have failed traditional classes.

NEW YORK—Bronx Arena is a “last chance” high school—one of a rapidly growing number of them that rely at least partially on online learning and aim to serve students who’ve been kicked out, dropped out, or simply checked out of traditional educational settings.

Like these other new programs, Bronx Arena takes advantage of online curricula to help its students—many of them older than average and way behind on course credits—advance as fast as possible toward graduation.

But unlike most of their peers, Bronx Arena’s leaders knew when they opened the school seven years ago that online courses alone would be insufficient to educate teenagers well—particularly the academically struggling students they serve. Teachers who knew the kids’ individual needs and quirks would have to be heavily involved in designing the classes and supporting students as they progressed through them.

“It doesn’t work when students just get put in front of a class, and the teacher doesn’t offer any enhancement and depth,” said Sam Sherwood, who worked as the school’s co-principal for two and a half years before leaving in January.

Bronx Arena is trying to find a middle ground—embracing the speed and flexibility of virtual learning while not losing key interpersonal elements or de-emphasizing the role of the teacher.

The school’s experience underscores the vast importance of implementation when it comes to online education: When virtual classes are used to supplant textbooks, teachers, and peer discussion—all the things we associate with traditional classroom instruction—they can render the high school experience virtually meaningless. But when, by contrast, online courses are customized and treated as one teaching tool among many, they can play an important role in helping students catch up quickly.

“Even as an adult it’s difficult to sit for four hours a day to try to go through a course alone,” said Vasy McCoy, the chief of school leadership at ReNEW Schools, a charter school network in New Orleans that operates an alternative school similar to Bronx Arena.

Both Bronx Arena and ReNEW Accelerated High School initially started off with “canned” online courses they bought, which they used to quickly help students recover academic credits so they could graduate. Bronx Arena, for instance, at first relied on popular online credit-recovery programs like Apex and Aventa for the bulk of students’ coursework.

But these classes overemphasized multiple-choice tests as a means of evaluating students, thereby failing to teach enough critical thinking, school leaders said.

And, like all mass-produced textbooks, the classes could feel culturally illiterate, disconnected from the students’ experiences and interests. “It wasn’t relatable, not just for the kids but for the teachers,” said Sherwood. Ty Cesene, Bronx Arena’s founding principal, recalls sitting beside one student who was in tears because she felt so lost taking one of the canned courses.

The teachers moved quickly to customize their online offerings—essentially building their own partially “online” classes from scratch. They began working on creating the classes during the school’s first year and the following summer, partnering with the New York City Department of Education on a curriculum design project to get the lion’s share of the courses done.

The teachers put a premium on creating content and lessons that would feel relevant to the students, like using episodes of The Wire to introduce scene-setting in an English class.

By Bronx Arena’s second year, about 70 percent of the computer-based curriculum was “homemade” while the remaining 30 percent came from prepackaged online classes.

Today, it’s 100 percent homemade. Each class has a detailed online portal where students can find overviews of each of the lessons, links to related readings and videos, and summaries of assignments. But the students leave that virtual portal for long stretches of time to meet with teachers and complete extensive projects such as origami in a geometry class or experiments in the Bronx River for a biology class. “We run an entire school of kids who have become disengaged from a traditional school setting,” said Sherwood. “We try to do high-interest stuff that’s theme-based.”

The classes all have a common template, but they also entail significant interaction with teachers. At strategic moments, a student might get an online notice instructing them to “see your teacher for a mini-lesson,” for instance.

“This is not something you can just sit at home and go through,” said Sherwood. “We didn’t want to leave everything so individualized that students just stay isolated in their own universes.”

One December morning when I visited, Bronx Arena student Michael Bocanegra, 20, was trying to finish a 10-paragraph essay on Frankenstein so that he could knock off another humanities credit. Students say that while the writing assignments are generally not long, they write more often than in a traditional credit recovery class—or really any kind of class. Bocanegra, who had floundered at the Bronx’s Dewitt Clinton High School before transferring to Bronx Arena, says most of the instruction is computer-based but the “teachers come in and out to help.”

“It’s a much better way of learning than sitting in class,” he says. “With 24 other students, you will be left behind.”

In a nearby classroom, teacher Andrew Feld spent several minutes helping 16-year-old Lakyra Lovell craft improved thesis statements and topic sentences for a short essay she was writing on what caused the United States to abandon its isolationist stance and enter World War II. “I’m trying to make something good better,” Felt told Lovell.

The biggest problem with traditional online credit recovery is that it all too often subjects the most struggling, disconnected, disengaged students to the least engaging and least personalized instruction. And it all too often takes teachers mostly out of the picture.

Bronx Arena and ReNEW Accelerated might not see some of the cost savings of alternative schools that rely almost solely on packaged curriculum. That’s because the two schools rely so heavily on in-person teachers to build the online courses and then, well, help teach them. “For us, the human component is way more important than the technology,” says Cesene.

Their experience may help point the way to a future where online education becomes a tool for empowering teachers and students alike—not a means of auctioning off the most struggling students to the companies and schools that promise to spend the least.