Computer-Assisted Learning Academy targets possible dropouts

McHENRY – School stressed out Brittanie Barker so much that she would get migraines and stomach ulcers.

The McHenry High School East student already was missing a lot of school because her younger sister, Brianna, had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and her stepfather, Mike Maresh, was injured on the job.

The family had to move from Lakemoor to McHenry when they lost their home to foreclosure.

By her junior year, she was missing about a week of school each month, said her mother, Tammy Barker.

She failed biology her freshman year and English her sophomore year. At that rate, she wouldn’t graduate on time, school officials told her and her family.

“School was just not really my thing,” said Brittanie Barker, now 16. “Being there, it was just overwhelming. At one point, they were like, ‘You can do it; you’re really good,’ and all this stuff, so they put me in superchallenging classes. It was just too much.”

She started looking at alternatives, suggesting a home-schooling program to her parents and guidance counselor. Instead, the school suggested the Computer-Assisted Learning Academy, also known as CALA.

The program is recommended by a team of guidance counselors, deans and teachers when the traditional education system does not work, McHenry East Principal Lynn Schnelker said.

That can mean students who are new parents, bullied, uncomfortable in school for social reasons or reluctant learners. Students in the special education department cannot go through CALA.

“We would lose these kids,” Schnelker said. “These would be nongraduating kids if we did not have this program. Is it as rigorous as the educational opportunities that they would get inside the building? Absolutely not, but for whatever reason, they are not choosing to take advantage of the opportunities inside the building.”

Students have to fill out a five-page form answering questions designed to paint a picture of the student’s interests, background and learning style.

Because the learning is computer-based, it tends to work best for visual learners and not as well for auditory and kinesthetic learners, Schnelker said.

The program operates out of a mobile classroom behind McHenry East. Computers line the room, and photos of past graduates are posted on the walls.

The program worked for Barker.

After starting the program in January, she sped through the classes she needed to make up plus the rest of her graduation requirements, staying longer than the required three hours per day and coming in on weekends and over spring break.

The courses were taken through NovaNET, which tracks students’ activity. They need to be actively working 80 percent of the time to not lose break privileges. Students also have to receive a minimum grade of 80 percent to receive credit.

“In the beginning, I was like, ‘Oh, this is going to be so easy. I’m not really going to have to do anything. It’s just computer work,’” Barker said. “It was really hard, and I did learn a lot from it, which was really surprising.”

Barker also maintained the other requirements of the program, including a total of 10 hours a week of outside learning.

That outside learning can translate into work experience, community service, correspondence courses or McHenry County College classes. Barker chose to get a part-time job.

The teacher who runs the program, Drew Cooper, places emphasis on setting concrete goals and preparing students for post-graduation.

Students in the CALA program are not allowed to graduate before their class; if they finish early, they can’t walk until their class does.

That rule disappointed Barker’s mother, but Brittanie Barker is just happy to be done and is ready to move on.

“I was really determined to get it down as quick as possible,” she said. “I felt like at that point, it was time for me to move forward, go to college, not just stick around and finish high school on a computer for the next year and a half.”

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