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Petaluma teen completes high school, online

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Petaluma high school senior Madeline Eger’s path to graduation came through her computer, leading her to a fall 2018 acceptance at Fresno State University for forensic science.

Eger, 18, went to Mary Collins School at Cherry Valley for elementary and middle school. As she neared completion, she found she was experiencing chronic migraines.

“I chose to attend California Connections Academy @ North Bay (CalCAN) because I needed different structures. CalCAN gave me extra time to work at my own pace,” Eger said.

CalCAN is a virtual, tuition-free public high school, with a North Bay administration and faculty offering instruction to TK-12 students in Colusa, Glenn, Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma and Yolo counties. The school offers a free computer for school for participating students. CalCAN is supported by Connections Academy, a Maryland-based company that is part of Pearson’s online and blended learning K-12 group.

Eger said CALCAN specially benefited her by offering electives that furthered her knowledge of criminology.

“My aunt is an evidence technician for the Petaluma Police Department and my mother is a certificated paralegal. I was introduced to these subjects (law and forensics) growing up. When I took the electives of introduction to law and psychology at CalCAN, the classes were almost too easy. Later I took sociology, criminal law, criminal investigation and criminal justice. By my sophomore year, I had decided to major in forensic science,” said Eger.

Eger said her teacher for the law-related courses, Damian Idiart, helped sharpen her focus. Idiart is a CalCAN teacher and a California-licensed attorney based in San Bruno.

Eger said one of the hardest aspects of going to a virtual school was socializing.

“I kept my existing friends from junior high and we did things together,” she said. “That first year, the transition was pretty hard. Yet I met people my age. I was a part of the National Honors Society. That organization requires community service. I helped with food drives at the Redwood Empire Food Bank around Thanksgiving and met other high school students.”

Eger said she also met other CalCAN students at field trips that the school plans in Sonoma, Marin and San Francisco counties.

“We go bowling, hiking, and to the Exploratorium,” she said. “At the beginning and end of the semester there are picnics. We also do in-person labs for science and sometimes we go ice skating at the Redwood Empire Ice Arena in Santa Rosa.”

Approximately 204 students are enrolled in CalCAN, with the number increasing every year, said Leslie Dombek, CalCAN site administrator and California assistant high school principal. This year, 24 seniors will graduate from the school. The school’s graduation rate varies depending on the number of graduating seniors in the school for the year.

“Students attend CalCAN for a wide variety of reasons. Students come to CalCAN to … continue their advancement in school (or) get caught up by filling in holes or gaps they may be missing in their education. Students also come to CalCAN due to health concerns and (because they) live in more rural areas that are not close to brick-and-mortar schools. We also have students who are athletes (or) actors (or) involved in other extracurricular activities (and) need more flexibility in their school day,” said Dombek.

CalCAN teachers offer instruction by calling students on the phone. They also teach groups in a virtual classroom through a program called LiveLesson. The video interface, which is similar to Skype, allows students to work together in small groups.

Dombek said CalCAN’s curriculum is rigorous and meets California state standards for graduation requirements. The school differs from brick-and-mortar education in that there is no bell schedule. Students also have additional time to complete portfolios, essays and tests, if necessary.

“Teachers are always available to help and encourage their students. Teachers are also available … if a student wants to redo their work or resubmit an assignment,” said Dombek.

The school guards against cheating by requiring students and parents to sign an honor code at the beginning of each semester. Students also use a software tool called CheckMyWork to search for plagiarized content. In addition, teachers determine that students are making progress by keeping in regular direct contact through phone, LiveLesson and email.

Eger said she completed CalCAN’s physical education requirement by taking a year and a half of nutrition and health and fitness classes. She also submitted a log of the activities she had done. In addition, she met with teachers in person to take fitness tests like a speed run and push-ups.

“If you don’t feel well, you do what you can,” said Eger.

Eger said her overall experience with CalCAN was extremely positive. She found attending an online school reduced the stress she previously had over missing deadlines.

“Virtual school made it easier to be more in control of my schedule and allow me time to recover from my migraines,” said Eger.

Dombek said CalCAN prepares graduating seniors for college through rigorous curriculum, advanced coursework including Advanced Placements, Honors and a-g courses required for admission by the University of California system, and counseling sessions that educate them about 2-year, 4-year, and vocational paths after graduation, as well as time management.

“We also offer in-person and virtual campus tours (of college campuses),” said Dombek.

Eger said in her freshman year at Fresno State, she hopes to take a mix of virtual and in-person classes.

“I think taking some online classes that first year would really help with my transition (to a brick-and-mortar school). It would also help with being away from home, where I’ve done most of my work for the last four years,” said Eger.

Eger chose Fresno State because it was not too far from Petaluma and she has family in that area.

“I think what I’ve done at CalCAN with managing my coursework and schedule, looking ahead and creating a timeline, is really going to help me succeed in college,” said Eger.

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