Members of the class of 2010 from Phase 4 Learning Center at the Century III Mall in West Mifflin in May.
Octavia Shelly, center, 20, celebrates graduating from Clairton High School through the Phase 4 Learning Center at the Century III Mall in West Mifflin in May.
Octavia Shelly, 20, from West Mifflin High School, waves to onlookers before the graduation ceremony for the class of 2010 from Phase 4 Learning Center at the Century III Mall in West Mifflin on May 26.
By Vivian Nereim Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and children walked to school -- uphill both ways -- students who failed a class had two options: Retake it next year and risk being held back, or brave the sweaty halls of summer school.
A few things have changed since then. Today, students do not retake classes, they "recover credits," a practice much touted by the educators who preach it and the businesses who sell it.
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Some students have so many options, one wonders how they choose: Teens who fail a class at Pine-Richland High School can attend summer school at another district or complete a correspondence course, Principal John Pietrusinski said.
They also can enroll in online programs offered by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, the North Hills School District and Keystone Credit Recovery, a for-profit company.
For students who struggle to pass classes because of health problems, pregnancy, learning disabilities or other difficulties, the chance to recover lost time can be an education-saving lifeline.
"I'm proud of myself. I didn't think I would make it," said Paige McKee, 20, a Penn Hills mother who graduated from high school in May. Ms. McKee took classes at Phase 4, a local nonprofit organization that melds computer software with traditional teaching to help students make up and earn credits.
But with new options come new concerns: Can students cheat by paying a friend to take an online class? Does outsourcing curriculum lower standards? And old worries about summer school linger: Can anyone learn a semester of material in a few weeks?
"Every district that participates in our program has asked that question at some point or another," said Denise Decheck, program director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit's e-CADEMY, which provides online credit recovery classes to students in dozens of local school districts.
Computer-based makeup programs have multiplied in recent years, creating a largely unregulated array of choices for schools trying to buoy floundering students and boost graduation rates. Sales of Aventa Learning's credit recovery courses increased eightfold between 2008 and 2010, said Gregg Levin, vice president of school solutions for Aventa, owned by the same company as Keystone Credit Recovery.
Educators who use credit recovery programs say they are a critical resource for students who fall behind.
"It gives them hope," said Janis Ripper, executive director of alternative programming for Pittsburgh Public Schools. "Because when you get behind so far, you lose hope and might drop out."
The programs are less expensive to operate than a summer school, according to some administrators. (Pine-Richland High School dropped its summer school years ago.) The programs also allow school districts to serve students who do not have access to summer transportation -- and to bolster athletes' records.
Ms. Decheck said students who need to become academically eligible to participate in fall sports are enrolling in the e-CADEMY's summer classes with increasing frequency.
Some educators wonder if the programs sell students short, though.
"It's almost impossible for a student to get the full or deep knowledge that a student would gain through the regular course," said John Tarka, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers president.
Mr. Tarka said schools should focus less on helping students make up classes and more on reducing the number who fail.
"Clearly, the processes that have been put in place ... don't reflect a whole year's work, or even a semester's work," he said.
Proponents of credit recovery said the classes can be completed relatively quickly because they distill concepts and fill in gaps; they are not meant to retrace an entire course.
"The assumption is that the kids have done the homework assignments, they've done the practice assignments, but they just didn't pass the test, or maybe they were sick," said Gary Myers, provost of Keystone Credit Recovery's Keystone School.
Still, local educators said that outsourcing class work always raises questions about rigor.
"You don't necessarily have the controls in place like you do when it's your own course," Mr. Pietrusinski said.
Some school districts administer credit recovery classes in a supervised computer lab, as at the Pittsburgh Public Schools Student Achievement Center. Others use courses students can complete at home, sometimes with minimal oversight.
Russell Rumberger, professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said he was not aware of any studies evaluating credit recovery programs.
"I think the districts are in the dark," said Mr. Rumberger, who has researched dropouts for about 30 years. "We don't really know much about their effectiveness. ... [Credit recovery companies] are selling a product. That's the thing. How do you make an informed choice?"
Facing that dilemma in 2006, the North Hills School District started creating its own program.
"It's definitely easier for a school to outsource it, but then you never really know what you're getting," said Jeff Taylor, the district's director of curriculum and assessment.
North Hills administrators sent students to other credit recovery classes in the past but were disappointed, he said. Some students who enrolled in an Algebra 1 makeup course -- even those who received a grade of A or B -- would flop in Algebra 2. Mr. Taylor said he heard of students in other districts paying friends to complete programs.
North Hills' online academy -- now offered to students from other districts, too -- requires students to take exams in a supervised classroom.
The Steel Valley School District plans to launch a cyber school during the 2010-11 school year, partly "to keep better accountability for what we're paying for," said Edward Colebank, the district's director of academics and director of technology.
For many school districts, creating an in-house program is not a viable solution.
"Some districts don't have the time and resources to do that," Ms. Decheck said.
The Pittsburgh Public Schools lease software for the Student Achievement Center from Pearson, another for-profit company, but the city's makeup mainstays are still night school and summer school. About 950 students traveled to Langley High School in Sheraden this summer to make up credits.
"You've got to do it or you aren't going to the next grade," said Shawnique Sowell, 15, of East Hills, who took two English and two algebra classes.
Walking through classrooms on a hot day in July, summer school Principal Tony Baldasare nudged students along, waking a boy who was sleeping in a biology class.
"For the most part, these kids are great," Mr. Baldasare said, explaining that the final days are tough.
"This year was really a struggle," he said. "The AC was down in half the building."
For Stephanie Kelly, 18, of Brookline, Langley was the last stop on the way to a diploma; she already had walked in her graduation ceremony. She needed to make up credits because of an unsuccessful year in a cyber school, she said.
Ms. Kelly was not fond of summer school. "We definitely do the same thing every day here," she said. But she was glad it enabled her to finish high school. "I'm excited," she said. "I want to go to beauty school."
For family members of students who need to make up time, any program that helps their teen graduate is worthwhile.
"This is a long time coming," said Karen Brown, of Monongahela, videotaping her son's Phase 4 graduation ceremony in May. Brandon Brown, then 19, was her third child to graduate through Phase 4, which enables students to receive diplomas from their school district.
"My son had many learning problems," Ms. Brown said. "He came here, and they worked with him, and they [were] amazing."
At his old school, Ms. Brown said, an administrator once told her, "If Brandon graduates ..."
"Here they said, 'Well, when he graduates,' " she said, readying her camera.