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Students assess class offering types

Along with finals, Advanced Placement (AP) tests and making plans for the future, selecting next year’s courses can be one of the most exciting and nerve-racking experiences for students, especially since the Mar. 1 deadline for schedule changes is fast approaching. With summer school and online classes, technical and vocational options offered through the Columbia Area Career Center (CACC) and the numerous interesting and challenging paths students can choose from, deciding what classes to take can be both an overwhelming and invigorating experience.

For senior Kaelyn Kovarik, figuring out what courses she wanted to take was fairly straightforward and aimed at preparing her for the future.

“For the beginning of high school it was pretty laid out for you, but as it got latter you got to pick more,” Kovarik said. “I knew I was interested in biology, so I just want to do things related to science and biological sciences for things I want to go into later in life.”

Kovarik began taking classes on a biological track her sophomore year, and she became more selective with what courses she decided to take during her junior and senior years.

[pullquote]“Classes I’ve taken in the past definitely play a role, especially the teachers I had for those classes, how much I liked the subject, and then also sometimes teachers will come and present a class.”   Kaelyn Kovarik, senior[/pullquote]

Though she wouldn’t take a class simply to be with her friends, Kovarik said she felt safe signing up for Contemporary Issues in Science and Society because her friends were, as well, and took their experiences in AP Biology under consideration.

“If my friends all take a class before I did and they loved it or hated it, that’ll help play into if I actually want to pursue taking that course,” Kovarik said. “And, sometimes, my friends and I have a lot of the same interests so we’ll end up in the same classes, but that’s not necessarily always intentional.”

When fitting required classes into her schedule, Kovarik said RBHS is good about informing students of what they need to graduate so they can make educated decisions. To make sure she has the credits she needs, Kovarik prioritizes mandatory classes then fills in the rest of her schedule around them.

“I also took some online summer classes to get them out of the way so I could take what I really wanted to later,” Kovarik said. “I took Personal Finance and P.E. over the summer before junior year.”

As a track and cross country runner for RBHS, the president of Mu Alpha Theta and a member of both National Honors Society and Mini MizzouThon, Kovarik said taking online classes is helpful for students who are involved in many extracurricular activities because they can be customized to fit into their hectic schedules as long as they keep track of their assignments. She also said, however, student-teacher interactions, aside from email relationships, are more complicated in online classes than in-seat courses.

“I definitely have made some deep connections with some of the teachers that I have taken in-person classes [with] here, and that would definitely be sacrificed with a lot of online classes,”  Kovarik said, “Then teachers not being able to explain the point as fully, exactly how the student needs it, ‘cause you can read that a little better person to person.”

 

On the electronic side of the educational field, David Bones, the Online Program Coordinator for Columbia Public Schools (CPS), has overseen the development and delivery of initial and recovery credit online course work for students in grades nine through twelve for the past three years. Through the online platform a wide variety of courses can be offered to students, though the most popular online classes include health, physical education, government and personal finance

“I work with the curriculum coordinators for each of the content areas in Columbia Public Schools to decide what’s offered,” Bones said. “And I also get input from building principals, administrators and counselors. So I hear feedback from counselors on needs that they have that… would make their side of the scheduling a bit easier.”

After three years of working in his position, Bones said he has seen a 30 percent growth in online course enrolment, though some classes, like online P.E. have limited spots available. Bones said there are a variety of reasons why students choose to take online courses and that they give students the choice of when and where to “do school.”

“Maybe they couldn’t have taken this one course face-to-face due to a scheduling conflict, but they are able to take it online,” Bones said. “Another benefit is it can free up student’s time if they have other opportunities or other responsibilities. So, an opportunity might be if they need to do A+ tutoring during the day or a job sharing opportunity during the day.”

For students with hectic schedules and intense course loads, the option of taking a class online provides them with unstructured time they would otherwise lack, and allows them to keep up with their work.

Kovarik stays organized by using a planner and being aware of time commitments, which allows her to have a balanced and positive school experience. She pairs challenging courses, like AP Biology, with classes like the EMT course, which the Columbia Area Career Center (CACC) offers, that she takes for fun and the experiences they provide.

“If you know that you’re gonna have a large time commitment with an extra curricular maybe take one less hard class than you were going to, or vise versa. Just make sure that you’re not overloading yourself,” Kovarik said. “Think about what you’re willing to do and maybe schedule it out.”

 

Teachers, just like students, are passionate about their classes. Susan Lidholm teaches many courses in the business department including AP Economics, Personal Finance and Online Investing 101, considers them to be “Tar Shack” classes.

“My dad grew up in a tar shack with a single mom, and he gave me the gift of knowing how to invest, and it’s beneficial to know that information,” Lidholm said. “In the ‘70s, we’re watching Wal-Mart together. And at that time you used the newspaper; of course, the internet wasn’t there, and you monitor it you put a little bit of money in. What was your gain?”

She said her father continued to monitor stocks until he died when he was 83 years old in a nursing home. The skills he gifted to her are the same ones Lidholm tries to pass along to her students. She said there is no “crystal ball” in the world of investing, so the classes a student takes depends on what their interests are and what they plan to major in.

“I want to look at [student course selection] as, ‘Are we fitting our kids needs? Is that their interest? Is that what we’re wanting to do?,’” Lidholm said. “But it can be difficult to get the word out there.”

Though the business program talks to students and hands out booklets at course nights, Lidholm said she felt like fewer students attended the event than in years past because eighth grade students had just visited the Friday before. Because of this, getting the information out about her classes was more difficult. To Lidholm, her class is important for students to take so they are not blindsided later in life when they have to manage their own money.

[pullquote align=”right”]“You need to be aware, because if you’re not aware of your finances and where your money is going, you’re setting yourself up for some failure. You want your money to work for you instead of you always working for your money.”       Personal Finance teacher, Susan Lidholm[/pullquote]

Along with teaching multiple in-class courses, Lidholm also teaches online courses. She said scheduling and the desire to do individual work is what motivates students to take online courses, but a majority of her students take classes in person.

“I think one part of [choosing an online course] is that it’s probably nice to get your feet wet with an online class, because in college that is one way that they’re encouraging people to take classes,” Lidholm said. “But, the disadvantage to it is if you’re not self-disciplined and self-motivated, you may not be the best online candidate with it. So you really have to take a look at what’s gonna fit for you.”

As an online teacher, Lidholm frequently contacts her students when they start the class by calling them and forming another connection aside from email so they realize how many assignments there are and how long it takes the average student to complete them. Still, Lidholm said she missed the personal relationships she formed with students when they would come into her classroom to ask questions.

With her in-seat curriculum, Lidholm said her students have to figure out the financial aspects of purchasing a car, the taxes involved, then finding the connections between the simulation and their own lives.

“Where the online does a fairly good job with that, but I think I want you to make certain that you’re doing that transition from ‘This is this person; now how do I apply it to me?’” Lidholm said. “I do worry that sometimes [online students are] not making that transition with that.”

Both Lidholm’s online and and in-seat classes are focused around how she can best make connections with students in order to teach them how to help themselves in the future.

“There’s a lot of information out there regarding personal finance,” Lidholm said, “and it’s one of those that you want to take a look at and say, ‘okay, what’s gonna work for me?’ ‘Cause what’s gonna work for me may not work for you, and you’ve got to tailor that program to work for you.”

 

For sophomore Audrey Mueller, course selection follows a progressive path in difficulty, includes AP and Honors classes and has a hard balance between what she thinks would be fun and what looks good to colleges.

“I needed more foreign language classes, so I’m taking Japanese because I thought it would be more interesting than something more basic, like Spanish. And I like theater. I mean, I really love theater, so I take theater,” Mueller said. “But it also looks good to colleges to have extracurriculars on your resume, so that’s kind of what I’m doing with that.”

Like Kovarik, Mueller deals with balancing the demands of her school work with other activities, like acting, she is involved in. Mueller works when she is off stage or has down time during rehearsal for Peter Pan, which she has every night, to stay on top of her course load.

“I work really hard in AUT,” Mueller said. “I usually come in before school at around 8 [a.m.] to do work, so that in effect gives me another AUT because if you have 45 minutes before school both days, that’s like a full hour and a half, so that’s a good strategy.”

Juggling theater and school can be tricky, and Mueller is forced to make sacrifices in order to stay committed to both parts of her life.

“Sometimes I will have to turn in things late because I was at rehearsal, [and] sometimes I am tired at rehearsal because I was working on school work,” Mueller said. “But I think everyone is like that, and it’s just kind of expected when you’re doing extracurriculars.

Both Kovarik and Mueller said the classes they take or do not take are based less on whether or not it would affect their GPAs and more on if they could balance AP or honors courses with their already tightly packed schedules.

“If I want to take a class, and I think that it would be beneficial to me, then I’ll just make it work,” Mueller said.

 

In Bones’ experience, online education enables students to complete their required classes and free up their schedules to take AP or CACC courses. They also relieve stress by providing students with more flexible deadlines.

“We do have some students who take it just because they have school anxiety issues,” Bones said. “So it kind of gives them a different way to do some of their schooling. And I’d also say, in part some take it because they realise that when they get out of high school, whether it be post high school education or a job, that online education is a part of what they’re preparing for these days, some see it as an important skill for their post secondary learning.”

Mueller values her friend’s advice when it comes to what classes she should take, but she doesn’t select courses based on what they choose.

“I guess it kind of influenced me with band and theater, Mueller said. “I joined band this year, and that was because I saw my friends were in it, and I wanted to hang out with them.”

She also relies on the experiences of other students when deciding what classes to take because teachers who recommended courses can have inherent biases for their own classes and fields.

[pullquote align=”left”]“Teachers who meet with you to discuss their classes are always really pro-take-my-class, so I find it’s actually more helpful to talk with students who have taken the class because they’re not going to be showing a bias for the class.” Sophomore Audrey Mueller[/pullquote]

 

In a similar way, Mueller seeks guidance from her parents. She said they have discussions with her and offer guidance instead of pressuring her to make decisions based on their wants.

“I think my parents are actually like kind of unusual in that. [They say,] ‘We’ll just let you do whatever you want as long as you’re happy with it,’” Mueller said.

Along with considering courses’ rigor and advice from her friends, family and students who have already taken or are currently taking a class, Mueller meets with teachers to learn more about classes she considers taking. This helps her have a better understanding of what the curriculum and workload would look like. When deciding what courses she wanted to take next year, Mueller met with numerous CACC teachers to learn more about their classes.

By taking online health, which replaces her AUT, Mueller is able to complete a required class without losing the option of taking other classes which she enjoys. Though she has not encountered any issues in her online course thus far, Mueller said she couldn’t imagine taking a math class online since the subject is more difficult for her.

“I can imagine in some classes [with] complicated material it would be hard for you because you are having to teach yourself everything and the teacher can’t necessarily tell if you’re confused,” Mueller said.

 

Although many students take online course to free up their schedules during the year, Mueller said she thinks it would be unlikely for everyone to switch to taking online classes because many students enjoy working with others. Still, she acknowledged that online courses can be more advantageous for ambitious, hard-working students because they provide them with additional time outside of a classroom and advance the opportunities available to students regarding what classes they could take.

“I don’t think [larger numbers of students taking online courses is] going to be such a big issue because so many people really like the in-seat environment,” Mueller said. “I really can’t picture a scenario where suddenly everyone is switching to online classes because it’s just so ingrained that we’re in school.”

When deciding what courses to choose this year, Mueller adopted a new mentality quite different from her more uptight and college-centered perspective of her freshman year.

“Take what classes that you think will be beneficial to you and fun,” Mueller said. “It’s just high school, and there’s a lot of opportunities for you later. So do think about it, obviously, but don’t freak out about it. It’s OK.”

For both Mueller and Kovarik, the relationships and interactions they have had with their teachers influenced their decisions and, in Kovarik’s case, had a direct impact on which teachers she wanted to write her letters of recommendation based out of the connections she’d made with them from the hours spent in their classrooms.

“I felt comfortable asking a couple teachers knowing that they knew me better than just the work I did in their class,” Kovarik said, “and they knew me as a person and they could personably write a letter for colleges.”

Although online programs offered through CPS have made significant advancements from when they were first offered almost eight years ago, professionals like Bones still strive for improvement.

“One of the challenges… is [finding] ways to communicate [among] faculty, all of our teachers are CPS teachers by the way, and students. We talked about how we started in 2010; well, back then we didn’t have things like Google Hangouts or Zoom, you know.” Bones said. “But I would say probably the biggest challenge is just trying to create that relationships so the student knows the teacher, the teacher knows the student.”

Along with improving communication between students and teachers, Bones acknowledged that online courses do have limitations that in-seat classes do not struggle with.

“Some courses do have online discussion boards, but it’s obviously not the same as having kind of a rigorous discussion with your peers face-to-face in the class and interacting with your teacher face-to-face,” Bones said. “So there’s obviously is difference in the online world.”

 

With his experience working with online programs, Bones said he has heard stories of students who “got a little freaked out” when they had to take online courses in college. The familiarity and support offered in a high school environment allows students to experience online learning before they have to face it later in their lives.

“Typically, it will help them kind of learn how it’s different than face-to-face,” Bones said, “and prepare them for kind of that same experience in college or in a work setting outside of highschool.”

For Bones, it would be “pretty awesome” if each building could have an online lab where students with issues, problems or content area questions could receive support “face-to-face” from a full time staff member. With online classes, much like those offered in an in-seat environment, students and teachers alike view accountability and responsibility as the keys to success.

“I think the main thing of online programs, it serves probably a small minority of students,” Lidholm said. “I don’t know if, as a highschooler, if I would have even been self motivated and wanting to complete my work in a timely manner and making certain that I am benefiting from the information with it.”

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