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By Katherine Mackey

August 2011

“I enjoy my job. I look forward to coming to work everyday and getting that ‘aha’ moment where I know I’ve taught someone something… As I work here, I’ve noticed that I really can address students individually and personally. And I teach. That’s what I do all day. I teach.” –Mikie Gillmore, Advanced Academics English teacher

At 7 a.m., Mark Miller arrives at the small, renovated warehouse in Oklahoma City’s vibrant “Bricktown” district where he has taught middle and high school social studies for the past 10 years. He rides the elevator to the seventh floor. But instead of entering an individual classroom, he walks into a large, open space that contains roughly 90 cubicles.

Several teachers are already at work in their cubicles communicating with students—via the Internet. One math teacher is simultaneously instant messaging with four different students using a virtual whiteboard, where she and her students sketch math equations on the same electronic surface. She seamlessly helps one student find the perimeter of a triangle, another student solve rational functions, a third student solve a word problem for subtracting fractions, and a fourth student review for a test on linear and quadratic functions. Meanwhile, an English teacher is taking advantage of the early hours to grade student essays before the 8 a.m. student rush begins.

Mark sits in his cubicle, which is decorated with photos of his family and other personal memorabilia. He turns on his dual-monitored computer and checks his email. He has already received nine emails from students with questions about various lessons and assignments. As he begins responding to each of the emails, the phone rings. It is a student in Minnesota who has a question about an economics assignment. Although Mark is certified in economics, it is not his forte. Luckily, Jonathan Helsel, who sits in the cubicle across from Mark, is the economics guru for the department. After consulting with Jonathan about the student’s question, Mark returns to the phone and proceeds to help the student understand the concept by giving him examples and directing him to other material within the course. When Mark senses that “aha” moment— that moment when the light bulb turns on inside the student’s head—he smiles and thinks to himself, “I love my job.”

It does not look like a typical “school,” but the warehouse is the headquarters of Advanced Academics, an online school that partners with more than 200 school districts and charter schools in 30 states to provide comprehensive middle and high school courses, highly qualified teachers, and a web-based learning management system. Since its inception in 2000, the for-profit company has delivered online courses to more than 90,000 students. Its students include a range of young people. Some have dropped out of traditional high schools. Others simply prefer the flexibility of learning at their own pace at home. Still others attend traditional schools, but want Advanced Placement classes that their own school cannot offer.

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  • Katherine Mackey
    Katherine Mackey