Online courses give high school students unique 'seed' to expand learning

Valhalla High School sophomores Steven Carpenter, 15, and

Valhalla High School sophomores Steven Carpenter, 15, and Carl Bespolka, 16, piloted online learning courses in the fall in architecture and paleontology. The courses are innovative offerings from the Putnam Northern Westchester BOCES that are catching on in local school districts. (Credit: Meghan Murphy)

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Reconstructing 15th century architecture, Steven Carpenter's final project for his online course is strictly a product of 21st century learning.

The 15-year-old Valhalla High School sophomore was part of an innovative new offering -- Online Courses for the 21st Century -- that is expanding course opportunities for Westchester County and Putnam County students in an era in which budget cuts are moving in the other direction.

"For a small high school like ours, this is a great program," said David Mintzes, a 65-year-old Valhalla High social studies teacher. "This gives students the opportunity to take courses they never would be able to take."

The program, in its second year, was orchestrated by Putnam Northern Westchester Board of Cooperative Educational Services and offers seven elective courses -- ranging from My Digital Life to Media and the Presidential Elections. About 100 students in 14 school districts are participating this school year.

The program gives students college-level learning primarily online but also provides the support needed for the high school student, including at least two face-to-face meetings and a coordinator in every school.

Carpenter, who took Architecture Across the Centuries, said the course challenged him to organize his time and learning and explore the topic on his own.

"You have to do the work and manage the time carefully and well," Carpenter said.

The highlight for Carpenter was a trip to New York City, where he learned from architects at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the new World Trade Center site.

His classmate, Carl Bespolka, who studied Historical Geology and Paleontology in the fall, said that students rather than teachers drove the online discussions.

"It's different than the normal classroom," Bespolka said. "You don't get to know the teacher as well, but they provide the seed for the students to grow on."

The two students were pioneers for the district, trying out the courses to see whether the school should sign on. Districts such as Ardsley, Bedford, Chappaqua, Croton-Harmon and Yorktown also offer the courses.

Principal Jonathon Thomas said the experience convinced school officials that the model will give his students opportunities and college preparation skills.

In fact, Valhalla High during the following school year will offer a course developed by its own social studies teacher. Mintzes will lead What My Parents Never Taught Me about the '60s, which he long has wanted to offer but never was able to find enough students to take at the 450-student high school.

"We want to provide them with elective opportunities that can challenge them and meet their interests," Thomas said. "In a small school, that's not easy to do in a traditional form."

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