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Online program at Paul R. Smith Middle offers best of both worlds

HOLIDAY —It's just halfway through the first semester of the 2013-14 school year and 14-year-old Allison Mickey is already seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

Ninth grade might come early for the eighth-grader from Paul R. Smith Middle School — at least when it comes to the subject of language arts.

"It's October and I'm already halfway done with the curriculum," Allison said. "By next semester I'll be doing ninth-grade work. It's like getting a head start on high school."

Getting ahead is priority for Allison. That's why she is one of 49 students at her school to enroll in the new Infinity online learning program for sixth- and eighth-grade students.

While other students are moving to various classrooms throughout the school day, Allison and her classmates pretty much stay put when the bell rings, working at their own pace on whatever subject they want.

"It's different — but different in a good way," Allison said. "If you want to work ahead you can. If you need to stop to review, you can. It's you who is in charge of what you are doing."

With some oversight, of course.

Teachers and longtime friends Kailin Santerre and Carolyn Erickson came up with the innovative teaching concept during the last school year and brought it to principal Margie Fackelman, who helped see it to fruition.

Their idea is a modern-day one-room schoolhouse of sorts, which expands on Pasco's eSchool program that lets students in grades 6 -12 take online classes under the umbrella of Florida Virtual School. Erickson and Santerre took professional development training through the Florida Virtual School and work closely on curriculum with Pasco's eSchool principal JoAnne Glenn.

"We wanted to engage students on various levels," Fackelman said. "We know the traditional classroom doesn't work for all students. Some want to go faster. Some want to go slower. This is just another way to get at the heart of teaching all of our students."

Sixty students applied for the program that was open to incoming sixth- and eighth graders on all learning levels. They had to write an essay on why they wanted to be in the Infinity program, secure recommendations from former teachers, and attend a summer orientation camp. Parents also had to show their buy-in by agreeing to attend monthly parent/teacher conferences.

"They really had to want this," Erickson said. "Some of the kids thought it would help them catch up. Some kids liked the idea of being in one classroom with one teacher. Some of the gifted kids were interested in the accelerated aspect of it. Some kids had been retained and thought it would help them catch up. Some of them liked the idea of working through the computer."

Others offered their own reasons.

"It was new. I wanted to try it out, especially after my sister explained middle school," said sixth-grader Avre Smith, 11.

"I signed up for it because I wanted a fresh start and because (in other classes) the teacher is always stopping because kids are being rowdy," said eighth-grader John Nelson, 13. "You can work at home. You don't have to wait for two or three kids who don't understand it before you can move on. If you have a subject that you are really good at, you can go above and beyond."

Infinity students get a blended education, Erickson said. Students have deadlines but are able to work at their own pace on curriculum that is available to them 24/7. They also benefit from more traditional "Live Lessons" in the classroom and one-on-one instruction from their teachers.

"What I love is that every kid is getting what they need," Erickson said. "Every child is where they need to be and getting the learning that is right for them."

"Another important part of this program is that we have the kids all day," Santerre said. "They know they can trust us. There's bonding."

On a recent morning, some eighth-graders collaborated on ideas for a community outreach project while Erickson worked with seven students on a prealgebra lesson. In the sixth-grade classroom across the hall, most students were busy working on a assignment on the importance of conservation while Santerre reviewed a science lesson on energy with 12-year-old Breon Jackson.

So far, Infinity is getting high marks from parents like Tina Hajj. Her daughter, Corina, 13, was accepted to the program a week after school started in August.

Early on, Hajj had some misgivings — especially since Corina came into the program after it was up and running.

"At first it was a challenge, but now she loves it," Hajj said, adding that she was thrilled about a recent field trip to St. Petersburg College in Tarpon Springs. "It's so great that these middle schoolers are already thinking about college. And she's (Corina) ending this quarter with straight A's and is actually ahead of the class. The teachers are awesome. They touch base with me once a month. If I have questions they are right on top of it. There's more personal contact.

"I'm just really happy with it," Hajj said. "And I'm looking forward to seeing what they come up with next."

Michele Miller can be reached at miller@tampabay.com.

Online program at Paul R. Smith Middle offers best of both worlds 10/24/13 [Last modified: Friday, October 25, 2013 5:16pm]

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