Alternative High School Program in Cook County

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EDUCATIONAL NEED

The Cook County Sheriff’s Department of Community Supervision and Intervention (DCSI) near Chicago was created in December of 1992 to plan, manage and administer programs for inmates outside the Department of Corrections (DOC). Its mission is twofold: to reduce jail overcrowding while assisting participants to break free of the cycle of criminality.

To achieve these goals and serve at-risk youth, Cook County Sheriff’s DCSI works with young offenders in the Day Reporting Program and Pre-Release units to help them get back on track with their lives while in the custody of the County.

Participants in Day Reporting are on electronic monitoring 24 hours a day; as part of their rehabilitation they check into the facility between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. During their time at the facility, they participate in a range of programs – from drug/alcohol treatment to cognitive behavioral restructuring and life skills training. However, Cook County Sheriff’s DCSI realized that education – one of the key ways of helping young offenders become more productive members of society – wasn’t being adequately addressed.

Cook County was looking for a solution to effectively meet the wide-ranging needs of its student population – students with different sentences, time being served, and different educational levels. Some students hadn’t gone beyond 9th grade; others had taken high school classes multiple times but simply never completed the course. Most had been in and out of school over several years and never graduated.

The agency needed a proven, cost-effective and flexible solution that would address the unique circumstances of its students and help at-risk youth re-start their high school education through:

  • Highly qualified, state-certified teaching professionals
  • State-approved curriculum focused on high school credit recovery and elective requirements
  • Self-paced, individualized learning
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    AVENTA LEARNING’S VIRTUAL SCHOOL SOLUTION

    In 2009, The Cook County Sheriff’s Department of Community Supervision and Intervention launched its first virtual classrooms on the campus of the jail using the Aventa Learning virtual learning platform. Aventa Learning enables qualified 17 to 21 year olds to earn high school credits toward a diploma through online learning programs.

    The Aventa virtual school solution is integrated with the High School Diploma Program, which operates as part of Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) Alternative Learning Opportunities Program (ALOP). The High School Diploma Program helps a young offender get back into school very quickly and offers all of the courses required to graduate from high school in the City of Chicago. If students receive all the credits needed to graduate, they can obtain a high school diploma from the last Chicago Public School they attended. All of the courses may be applied toward any other high school’s requirements.Students who are enrolled in the program are able to start their assigned courses within 24-¬48 hours. Every schedule is customized based on a student’s unique start dates, making education easily accessible and available to anyone eligible, at any time.

    Through Aventa, students access their courses online at one of four computer-enabled classrooms; Cook County provides the computers while Aventa delivers the online learning. Each student is assigned a personal online teacher (all of whom are licensed and certified in their specific subject area) and receives instruction through online coursework, email, and phone. Students also get in-person support and encouragement during their time in the classroom from their onsite Cook County mentor, who plays a special role in the program and is extensively trained by Aventa in how to support students who attend the virtual school. Mentors help motivate the students, enforce school policy, and serve as a liaison between CPS and online teachers. They also receive weekly email reports related to each student’s progress, activity, and or inactivity.

    Aventa Learning provides the online course content, system hosting, instruction and grading, while CPS staff oversee the program, analyze student transcripts, assign courses, monitor compliance with graduation requirements, and assign final grades based on performance. Students who have begun an online learning program can continue to work towards graduation at other sites when they are released from the Sheriff’s custody.

    In addition, the Aventa virtual school solution provides an array of opportunities for students to learn and practice 21st Century job-readiness skills, such as using email, learning software programs (PowerPoint and webinars), time management, and navigating online programs that require completion of specific tasks.

    High school classes offered through Aventa include Core requirements, Electives (Health, Driver’s Education, Career Planning, etc.) and Credit Recovery courses (designed for students who have taken the course already but did not pass or complete the class. Credit Recovery allows students to complete their coursework and receive full credit for a class.)

    Current students are taking a wide range of online courses in the High School Diploma Program, including: Geometry, Algebra 1, Algebra 2/ Trigonometry, English III and IV, Literature, American/World History, and American Government.

    RESULTS

    The program has grown from 20 students served to more than 60 in just a year. More importantly, many students at Cook County Jail have been re-energized about their education. Staff report that students are completing credits more quickly than anticipated, and since the program was introduced, nearly every student has passed their classes.

    With the success of the program in the Day Reporting and Pre-Release units, Cook County Sheriff’s DCSI plans to extend online learning to a small number of eligible students in its Boot Camp unit in 2010. Boot Camp is a rigorous, on-site program that gives incarcerated offenders the structure and discipline they need, similar to a military school. Having the opportunity to go back to school is an important part of the Boot Camp mission and will now be enabled through Aventa Learning.

    Cook County’s Reentry Coordinator, who is responsible for advocating for youth offenders and coordinating the various programs that serve them, reports that online learning is making a significant difference for students who come into the program with just a few credits. Since March 2009, despite being a small program with very transient students who come into and out of the system, 88 credits have been granted in the Day Reporting/Pre-Release units, with an average passing grade of 72%.These transient students are able to leave the program and continue their credit recovery work at 75 CPS high schools (including neighborhood schools, alternative education schools and charter schools) that use Aventa Credit Recovery this year. Students will also have the chance to take some of the Core/Elective courses required for high school graduation in Illinois through the Aventa virtual school.

    The Cook County Sheriff’s Department of Community Supervision Intervention program currently has the best record of any Aventa Learning-based Chicago school and recently saw its first two students graduate from the program. Small, but significant successes happen every week. One young man who started with only two credits has now earned 13 credits. Another reported that with the online learning system he no longer loses his homework or expensive textbooks. A third student completed a year of geometry in just two weeks.

    Together with Aventa Learning, the Cook County Sheriff’s Department of Community Supervision and Intervention has enabled more than 60 students who are serving time to pursue their educations and earn valuable high school credits through online learning.

    “Online learning serves this very diverse population well. Students can move at their own pace and the individualized teaching suits their needs.”

    Rebecca Janowitz, Director of Reentry Policy – Office of the Cook County Sheriff