By James Sloan and Katherine Mackey
In the fall of 2008, a new high school located in the poverty-stricken, crime-ridden neighborhood of Austin on Chicago’s West Side opened its doors to 151 freshmen. Called VOISE Academy (VOISE), this school was different from many of the new high schools opening in Chicago at that time, as it blended a traditional brick-and-mortar school environment with something much less familiar—a fully online curriculum. Now in its second year of operations, VOISE, which stands for Virtual Opportunities Inside a School Environment, plans to add a new grade each year until it serves up to 600 students in grades 9 through 12.
VOISE was created under CPS’s Renaissance 2010 initiative, whose goal was to create 100 high-performing public schools in priority communities* by the year 2010. CPS allows Renaissance schools more freedom in their curriculum and structure than traditional CPS schools** in exchange for higher levels of accountability. This increased autonomy has made it possible for VOISE to employ a fully online curriculum.
VOISE uses a blended-learning model (also known as a hybrid model). The school follows a traditional school calendar and daily class schedule with highly qualified teachers in the classrooms, but teachers are not the primary source of the learning content. Instead, students learn at their own pace and level through online courses that they complete on wireless laptop computers. Teachers act as the instructional guides by encouraging and mentoring students and providing individualized instruction to them on a need-by-need basis.
At VOISE, faculty and staff have found that online courses stimulate learning in the following ways:
• Students are more engaged because of the multimedia content, interactivity, and frequent feedback.
• The active nature of learning stimulates feelings of ownership and empowerment in students.
• Mastery-based curriculum ensures that students are learning as they progress through a course.
• Online curriculum allows greater flexibility for different learning styles.
• Rapid, unbiased feedback allows teachers to intervene as soon as students begin struggling with a concept.
CPS funds Renaissance schools on a per-pupil basis. Given the flexibility of the per-pupil funding, administrators can operate VOISE with CPS dollars alone.
VOISE’s freshman on-track rate*** after the first year was 70 percent,**** which was above Chicago’s average freshman on-track rate of 64 percent.***** This placed VOISE in the top quintile of CPS high schools.
*Priority communities refer to 25 of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods that the IFF (formerly the Illinois Facilities Fund) prioritized as having the greatest need for quality public schools in Chicago. “Here and Now,” Illinois Facilities Fund, 2004.
**Traditional CPS schools include neighborhood schools, magnet schools, alternative schools, vocational schools, military schools, achievement academies, selective enrollment schools, math/science academies, and special education schools.
***CPS considers 9th graders “on track” if they have accumulated at least five course credits and failed no more than one semester course in a core subject (English, math, social science, or science) during the school year. According to CPS, “[f ]reshmen who are designated as on track are three-and-a-half times more likely to graduate from high school in four years than students who are off track.” “On Track Rate Fact Sheet,” Chicago Public Schools, January 18, 2008, http://research.cps.k12.il.us/cps/accountweb/Reports/Fact_Sheets.html (accessed December 7, 2009).
****At the time this case study was written, CPS was calculating VOISE’s freshman on-track rate at 67.1 percent, whereas the school was calculating it at 70 percent.
*****“Freshman On Track Rates 2006–2009,” Chicago Public Schools, November 9, 2009, http://research.cps.k12. il.us/export/sites/default/accountweb/Reports/Citywide/ontrk_report_citywide_2009.pdf (accessed December 7, 2009). “High School Freshman On Track Rates 1997–2009,” Chicago Public Schools, November 9, 2009, http:// research.cps.k12.il.us/cps/accountweb/Reports/allschools.html (accessed December 7, 2009).