Amidst an Era of Great Change, One School Remains the Same

Emma Dumitru, Arts Department Co-Editor

The George Washington University Online High School, which is currently celebrating its 10-year anniversary, is one of many online schools that has seen increased enrollment due to the pandemic.

Is online learning just as good as in-person learning? The COVID-19 pandemic has forced thousands of students across the country to shift to a new format of academic instruction, causing virtual learning to step into the spotlight and face both praise and criticism. However, one thing is clear: online schools have gained substantial popularity. 

According to recent reporting by Inside Higher Ed, online schools, including those affiliated with universities, have seen enrollment increase considerably. One of those schools is the George Washington University Online High School, which is in its 10th year of existence. This year, the school has gained about 550 new enrollees, and the number of staff members has tripled. 

“Every year, we do see some growth, but it has never been like this. [Families] weren’t happy with the experience of last spring whenever their brick and mortar schools went completely virtual, and so, they were looking for a school that…is experienced,” said Alison Mistretta, the Head of School. 

The school is a partnership between the George Washington University and K12 Inc. Some may wonder if the leading research university is truly involved in the administration of its high school, but those doubts are unfounded. 

“Our Associate Head of School, Dr. Coyle, is actually an employee of the university so that she can serve as the liaison between the university and our school. We also have an advisory board, and on that advisory board, are different members from the university.” 

The mere mention of K12 can raise eyebrows, as well. According to The New York Times, K12 is famous for enrolling high numbers of students in an effort to increase profits, which in turn, leads to continuous records of low academic performance. However, GWUOHS does not automatically accept all students who apply. 

“Dr. Coyle and I review each and every application. We’re taking a really holistic point of view of the student, so we’re looking at the past transcripts, but we’re also finding out about the student’s study habits, their study skills, their past academic performance, their questionnaire…and then we get to see their writing abilities through an essay,” said Mistretta. 

The most recent school profile lists an average SAT score of 1,221 out of 1,600 and an average ACT score of 26 out of 36. All students who have taken an AP exam scored a 3 or higher (on a scale of 1-5), and seniors have been accepted to a long list of prestigious colleges and universities. 

“When I first started here in 2016, there may have been a little more hesitation from colleges to accept a student that was fully online…I guess if you want to look at any silver lining from the pandemic and forcing everyone online, now pretty much every student is going to be coming with some level of online experience,” said Lisa Bell, the Lead College Counselor. It should be noted that students do not receive special treatment when they apply to George Washington University, but many have been accepted in the past.

The main portion of the school’s curriculum is composed of daily asynchronous (self-paced) activities. To work through lessons, students click through screens of text and test their knowledge through computer-scored multiple-choice quizzes and tests. Online content is supplemented with provided materials, including science lab equipment. Assignments, which incorporate written responses, for the most part, are graded by teachers, and students are sometimes required to participate in discussion boards with their fellow classmates. 

Genesis Banks, a new student this year, finds that online learning works well for her. “Learning online for me is much better than learning in-person. I love discovering new technology and writing/typing formats. I also enjoy looking at my progress instead of waiting for a report card or the teacher,” she said.

Many students have passions that demand significant time commitments, and the school accommodates this by offering rolling monthly deadlines for most course assignments. Despite this, schoolwork is just as rigorous as in a brick and mortar high school. 

“The workload is not too heavy, but it does pile up on me. I do have to do homework on the weekends and cut out some of my practice time for GW homework. But on the bright side, I do love the homework. Maybe the reason why I personally think the workload isn’t too heavy [is] because I’m still getting used to it, and I practice a little bit too much,” said Banks, who is also a competitive piano player. 

Genesis Banks has time to keep up with her studies and engage in her passion–playing the piano. (Genesis Banks)

“The benefit of studying at GWUOHS is the freedom to pursue and develop my interests. I like to play tennis, chess, and practice martial arts. With a self-managed lifestyle, I have the luxury of traveling to tournaments and still have enough time to practice and enhance my skills in each of these passions,” said Julian-Alexandre Wang, a student who is entering his second year at the school.

Teachers are highly involved in their relationships with students. “To be a GW teacher, you need to be student-focused, you need to be willing to work side-by-side with students to set them up for academic success,” said Mistretta. Each student is required to regularly discuss academic and extracurricular progress with an assigned advisor. Advisors assist students in creating an annual academic, emotional, and social goal, and they check-in with parents once a month. 

Another aspect of the school’s curriculum is the weekly one-hour “ClassConnects”, sessions where students get together with their core subject teachers and fellow classmates for live instruction. Students are required to attend or watch the recordings of at least ten “ClassConnects” per semester. During these classes, teachers lecture and ask questions of students, just like they would in a traditional classroom. 

“Live sessions just create a more effective and interactive environment…It allows students and teachers to get to know everyone in the classroom a little bit better,” said Wang. It then falls on the shoulders of the students themselves to take the initiative to reach out to their teachers whenever they need assistance. 

The school also offers a rigorous high school experience for college-bound students. This facet can most notably be seen in the Journeys Symposium course sequence, which students are required to take each year. “Journeys”, as it is referred to by students and staff, teaches both college preparation and life skills on a weekly live class basis. The courses cover a wide range of topics, such as time management, testing, self-reflection, career exploration, community service, college essays, financial aid, and college applications. As a bonus, all students gain free access to Method Test Prep, an online SAT and ACT preparation program. 

By senior year, students utilize all of the skills they have learned in Journeys Symposium to complete a Capstone Project. “Seniors are given the opportunity to choose a topic, whether it’s something brand new to them or something they’re already passionate about, as long as they’re going above and beyond,” Bell said. Over the years, students have participated in all sorts of projects, from obtaining SCUBA diving certification to learning how to sew. “Last year, a student developed a visual menu that a few local restaurants actually implemented for people with dementia or the inability to read,” said Bell. A few lucky students are invited to present their projects during graduation weekend, which takes place on the George Washington University campus.

Students during the 2019 graduation ceremony. (GWUOHS.com)

In-person interaction with friends cannot be replicated in the online environment, as Wang himself acknowledges. “It is hard to get students to connect and socialize face-to-face. There’s a certain disconnect because even when the opportunity arises whereby students can meet up, it could take a little longer for students to warm up and break the ice.” The school is unique in that it comprises of a student body that lives across the United States and around the world, but this also means that face-to-face gatherings are limited to a few George Washington University field trips throughout the year.

Students do have opportunities to get to know each other, from chatting with fellow students in Skype groups to joining a vast array of clubs. Some clubs being offered this year are the National Honor Society, Amnesty International, Diversity and Inclusion, Medical Team, and the GW Chronicle (newspaper). These clubs meet online at least once a month and are led by students and teacher sponsors. 

“During my years of being homeschooled, and most of my time in in-person school, I didn’t make many friends. Now, with GW, I talk with a whole bunch of people, offer music-based help, and attend calls from my classmates. I talk with them nearly every single day,” said Banks. 

Students are encouraged to take the lead when it comes to connecting with others online. “One of my favorite memories at GWUOHS is when my brother, Brennan-Pierson, and I held a summer immersion chess camp…We had a great turnout with a lot of engaging and enthusiastic participants. I really felt engaged as a GWUOHS student,” said Wang. 

Julian-Alexandre Wang, seen here completing work while traveling, is an active member of the school community. (Julian Alexandre-Wang)

There is one overarching factor that cannot be ignored when a private university-affiliated online high school is mentioned: the price tag of tuition. A year of middle school (8th grade) costs $10,500, while a year of high school costs $12,000. The school does offer a full-ride need-based and merit-based scholarship to one incoming freshman each year, but this still does not offset the expensive cost for the majority of families. 

For those that can afford it, the George Washington University Online High School provides one of the most unique personal educational experiences on the online private school market. Mistretta said, “I always tell anybody who will listen to me that this is the best career opportunity of my entire career because of the student body. I have never worked with such exceptional, driven, motivated students.”

For more information, visit the GWUOHS website.

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