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The online courses at St. Mary’s public high schools are continuing this year as more students are able to earn or recover credits on the path to graduation.

Superintendent Michael Martirano said the “school without walls” is the way of the future.

The county’s three public high schools started offering online courses last year, mostly for students to take after they had failed a course.

The program is in partnership with America’s Promise Alliance, a nonprofit education reform group founded to decrease the dropout rate and, in turn, improve the graduation rate in the country. St. Mary’s was one of four school systems in the nation that the nonprofit selected for a grant to pay for three years of a digital curriculum from Apex Learning; the estimated cost of the program (not including teaching staff) is about $150,000 per year.

School administrators and the school board will have to decide whether to pay to continue the online courses after the grant ends.

“What we’re trying to do is build into our budget structure so access to these programs can continue,” Regina Greely, director of instructional technology, said.

Online courses can be paid for in different ways, she said, including by student use or number of courses. For now, St. Mary’s schools has unlimited access to the company’s entire catalogue thanks to the grant program, she said.

Students can move through online course work at their own pace, cruising through material they easily understand while taking more time, and asking questions of the teacher in the room, on more complicated subject matter.

They can also work from home in the evening, over weekends and even over winter or spring break.

Teacher Sara Poe said that students can also print out lessons to take home over the weekend if they do not have a computer or Internet connection available at home. The St. Mary’s public libraries also have computers available for students to use for any work, including Apex courses.

Great Mills school administrators have expanded the program and created a second classroom dedicated to the program, along with a second teacher.

Tyrone Bell, a Great Mills graduate and new football coach at the school, joined Poe as an Apex teacher this school year. Leonardtown and Chopticon high schools each has one classroom and a teacher dedicated to the program.

Poe said the Apex teachers teach “anything under the sun. I have every content area.”

Having a teacher in the room for those online classes is what ultimately will make the program successful, educators said.

Depending on the time of day, there can be anywhere from a couple to more than 20 students sitting at the bank of computers in the Apex classrooms, Poe said, adding that “enrollment is elastic.”

If a student is not completing the work or otherwise not succeeding with the online courses, he or she can be pulled and placed back into a traditional course.

There are currently about 335 students taking Apex courses this school year, including 193 at Great Mills, 77 at Chopticon, 61 at Leonardtown and four students at the Fairlead Academy. Those students have completed more than 50 courses since the start of school, according to school officials. Some students can complete a semester’s worth of work in less than a month, Poe said.

“The graduation rate has increased tremendously this year” thanks to students making up credit online, Martirano said. He said that one in five of last spring’s graduates from Great Mills had taken at least one Apex course, contributing to the highest number of students ever to graduate from the school.

During a recent tour of an Apex classroom, school board member Cathy Allen asked if Apex classes could play into students’ special education teaching plans as a more appropriate form of education.

Principal Jake Heibel said that in some cases the online course could be a better, more appropriate fit for a specific student in terms of meeting their disability needs. The courses are also used for some home-hospital students. Heibel stressed, though, that the online courses are not meant for everybody.

“You have to take ownership of this,” he said, adding that it is a fallacy to think the online courses are any easier than traditional courses.

Counselors and assistant principals talk to the students and determine whether they might be successful in retaking a course online, instead of repeating a traditional classroom course.

Heibel said one student is retaking courses she failed during her first four years of high school and hopes to earn enough credits for her diploma as a fifth-year student. She is working from her home computer on most, if not all, of the subjects, he said.

Greely said the program could be expanded into middle schools, especially for high school classes such as algebra or beginning language courses that are already offered to middle school students.