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NCSSM enrolls students throughout state in online program

There is a map of North Carolina on Kendall Hageman’s office door. Counties are colored in to note where she has visited — 37 so far. She printed maps for her coworkers at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM) to put on their doors.

As director of distance education and extended programs, Hageman encourages an outreach-focused mission. An integral piece of that outreach is the school’s online program.

“That’s kind of what drives me,” Hageman said. “My thought is to be out of the school as much as I can during the school year.” 

On Hageman’s desk and the school’s website, there are similar maps. In them, all but seven of the counties are colored in, representing the regions NCSSM has reached this year, either through their residential or distance education programs.  

Hageman has made it her goal to see a solid state on both maps, focusing in on regions where NCSSM does not serve students. Right now, those counties are Caswell, Hoke, Yancey, Jones, Greene, Edgecombe, and Bertie.

“What I started doing is researching who the STEM coordinator is in those counties, and that’s where we started targeting,” Hageman said.  

She visits schools, talks with administrators, and tries to spread the word on opportunities outside the school’s residential program, which is what most people think of when they think NCSSM. The school is a competitive public boarding facility focused around STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) where residential students live on campus for their last two years of high school.

The online program, however, is just as competitive and rigorous, Hageman said, but offers a different option to students across the state — learn from where you are. In addition to their regular schoolwork, online students take additional NCSSM classes they would not otherwise be able to access. 

Amanda Martyn, an NCSSM online science teacher, said she has found online students are often even more dedicated than residential students. She said the program is not for everybody and requires time management skills and high-level critical thinking.

“Students have to be pretty motivated in order to succeed in the online program because it is so self-driven,” Martyn said. She said students who procrastinate or are used to having a teacher to constantly hold them accountable often get overwhelmed and struggle. 

The application process for the remote program is nearly identical to the residential application prcoess, with the exception of a math test residential students have to take. When applying to NCSSM, students can either check residential, online, or both, but have to identify a preference. If a student does not get into one, he or she is not guaranteed admission to the other. 

Most of the courses are specialized and, especially for students in rural areas, are subject areas their schools might not have the resources to fund. Martyn, who teaches molecular genetics, epidemiology, forensic science, and classical genetics, said she sees the program as a way for the state to save money and resources by hiring an expert to teach a specialized course to a wide audience.

“On top of that, we’re reaching the students who have absolutely exhausted all of their opportunities at their home school,” Martyn said. 

For students who choose online over residential, Hageman said there are multiple reasons. They may be involved in sports that are not offered at NCSSM, like football. They may have grown up playing with coaches or teams they do not want to leave. 

They may just not be ready to leave home yet. Residential students apply as sophomores in high school and leave home the summer before junior year. 

“Many of them are 14 and 15 years old,” she said. “I could see how it would be intimidating.”

They may be engaged in their home schools and communities through clubs, volunteerism, church, and in a number of other ways. Students in rural regions of the state, Hageman said, are often especially likely to not want to leave their communities. 

Online students can choose to dual-enroll, which adds the courses they take online to their high school transcript, affecting their GPA and class rank. Hageman said most students, at least at first, keep the two separate. They usually do not want to risk the harder courses negatively impacting their ability to get into college.

For each course a student takes — usually between one and three a semester — the instructor has a weekly webinar. That means, for a class, students from across the state sit at computers at home or somewhere with Internet access, listen to a lesson, and engage with classmates on the subject material. 

Depending on the instructor and the subject, the courses can look very different. Some call on students during the webinar and expect them to have their webcams and microphones on to participate. Some have students break up in groups to chat and work together on problems before coming back together as an entire class and sharing techniques. 

Throughout the week, presentations, videos, modules, quizzes, and other documents are posted on an online platform called Canvas. Some instructors include daily guides of what material a student should look over each night to stay on track. 

Depending on the course, students may have mandatory on-campus weekends, usually once or twice a semester. Hageman said, especially with science courses, the weekends are an important part of hands-on learning. 

During such weekends, students work through labs and coursework, participate in social activities, and take field trips to places like the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham or the Eno River.

Hageman said the program is starting to offer a full day of programs for students who are enrolled in courses without mandatory on-campus weekends but just want to come experience the campus. 

It is a way of making online students feel included as part of the NCSSM community. There are also regional meetings, where online students can meet up with other students in their area of the state and go on a field trip. Online students are also invited to prom, academic competitions, and graduation. 

Hageman said she faced a lack of awareness when she started her work. 

“It frustrated me when I first started that so many people didn’t know about the online program,” she said.

“It’s not just that we educate 680 students a year in our residential program, but we have the opportunity to touch the lives of thousands of students and teachers through different programs.”

Editor’s Note: This article is the first of a three-part series. Look for profiles on two NCSSM online students in eastern North Carolina this week. 

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.