The Myron Thompson Academy is an online public charter school that operates in the basement of Waterfront Towers. Educational assistant Bryan Mick worked with student Julio Ho on Tuesday.

Students get wired
education at state’s
online public school

The 112 students use computers and talk
with teachers via e-mail or cell phone

By Susan Essoyan

At Myron B. Thompson Academy, you don't have to worry about getting to school on time. Or what to wear.

You don't even have to leave your house most of the time. It's all up to you and your laptop computer.

The public high school is the state's only "virtual school," where students click on their computers to attend class online and consult with their teachers via e-mail or telephone.

"What I like best is the freedom," said Micah Doi, a 14-year-old freshman who lives in Waikele. "I like the freedom of doing it whenever I want and of going out whenever I want."

Founded last year as Hawaii E-Charter, the school was renamed last summer and now has 112 students statewide and more on a wait list. It operates out of 3,000 square feet of rented space in the basement of Waterfront Towers in downtown Honolulu. Each student is issued a laptop.

And every teacher gets a cell phone.

"My students call me from 7 in the morning to 10 at night," said teacher Greg Kent, smiling and shaking his head. "It's like having a bunch of high school siblings. They can get help whenever they want to, and they really do take advantage of that."

Johnlyn Doi's children, Micah and Courtney, had tried regular public school, private school and home-schooling before settling in at Thompson Academy.

"It's really like a home school, but you have professionals teaching," Johnlyn Doi said. "It has plusses all around. It teaches kids how to be independent and actually be responsible. And because it's a public school, it helps us financially."

The school attracts an eclectic mix: straight-A types who get bored in regular school and want to accelerate their learning. Students who need remedial help and extra attention. Students who have jobs or babies and need to juggle schedules.

"In regular school they are locked into a traditional schedule," said Principal Diana Oshiro. "Here they have a little more freedom to step out of the box."

At Thompson each student has a personal study plan. Students generally take two courses at a time, for approximately six weeks of intense study in each subject. Depending on their strengths and weaknesses, the schedule can be adjusted.

"I was bored in regular public school," said Micah Doi. "I would just daydream." At Thompson when he finished up a course early, he moved on to a new class.

Self-motivated learners like Doi do well at Thompson, according to Oshiro. Kids who need more structure tend to gravitate back to traditional school.

"The ones that are not really self-directed purge themselves," she said.

Most of Thompson's students are on Oahu, with two on Maui, four on Kauai, 15 on the Big Island and 17 on Molokai, according to registrar Gary Sakima.

Teachers fly to the neighbor islands once a week to meet with those students face to face.

In regular school, keeping order in the classroom can be a headache.

That is not a problem for teachers at Thompson, who usually work with their students one on one, via computer or phone.

"You don't spend 90 percent of your time trying to manage the classroom," said Don Marks, who used to teach math at King Intermediate School and now handles geometry, biology and art at Thompson. "You spend a lot more of your time teaching, directly helping students."

For some courses, communicating via computer can be challenging. With no chemistry lab, students must watch videotaped experiments and conduct their own with household ingredients. Some math concepts, too, are much easier to explain face to face.

"It's hard to tell students over the phone, the graph should look like this," noted Leslie Arakaki, who teaches chemistry and math.

The school has six full-time teachers and a couple of part-timers, Oshiro said. Most handle more than one subject. With a low student-teacher ratio, teachers bond with their students more than in most schools.

"I think I'm closer to my teachers because there are less students, and it's more personalized when you have to ask them questions," said Courtney Doi, a junior. But she said she does miss the chance to see lots of school friends every day and to participate in activities like band.

Teenagers, after all, are largely social creatures, and Thompson Academy is limited in that regard. For students who crave the social life of high school, with its proms and football games, the school falls short.

"Going to school where you don't talk to anybody doesn't really prepare you for the outside world. You get to talk to students when you come in, but it's still not like regular school," said Jason Wessel, 15.

But Wessel still prefers it to the parochial school he attended because he gets along far better with his teachers and can set his own schedule.

Socially phobic kids overwhelmed by a regular classroom feel right at home at the school, since it is right at home. The school has a number of emotionally and mentally challenged students, Oshiro said.

To combat the tendency toward becoming a computer nerd, Thompson Academy encourages student-to-student contact.

"We require that you have discussion forums going on so that the student on the Big Island can interact with the kid in Kailua," Oshiro said. "The kids also organize themselves with activities like the news bureau and ecology and literature clubs."

Those who are having trouble with their schoolwork are required to come to campus. Students also take tests at the downtown headquarters and gather for physical education. All the classes have an exhibition part where the students must demonstrate what they have learned.

Students enrolled in the school's Ocean Learning Academy get a hands-on, outdoor education designed by navigator Nainoa Thompson, son of the school's namesake. They head into the field regularly to do things like map coral reefs while paddling canoes, and they learn to read charts and the stars. On Molokai, students supplement their online classes by working to restore fishponds and forests, supervised by the Nature Conservancy.

"They learn the old Hawaiian ways as well as how to sustain it with today's technologies," Oshiro said.

Because students on Molokai lack high-speed connectivity for their computers at home, they gather at a site in Kaunakakai for their computer work. Molokai High School Principal Linda Puleloa said Thompson Academy offers a valuable alternative for kids on the small island, where academic choices are few.

"Some of our students have a difficult time in a large school setting, and this gives them an opportunity to work with adults in a small group," she said. "They get individualized attention and role-modeling. It's a good thing."

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