Walk into Ombudsman West, a new accelerated high school on 52nd Street near Lancaster Avenue, and you will see a spacious room with 23 computers. On a typical day, it is filled with students busily working, each following an individualized program of study aligned with state standards.
Ombudsman, a national company based in Illinois, has developed a model used in 16 states in which students spend 80 percent of their four-and-a-half-hour school day at the computer. Using a program called “A-Plus,” they complete a customized series of lessons that include core content areas like history and chemistry along with basic reading, writing, and math skills.
Students work at their own pace and decide the order to complete the four-step lessons. First, they “study,” clicking through a series of slides and taking notes; then, they “practice,” answering multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank questions. Next, a teacher activates the ten-question “test,” which the computer immediately grades. If they pass, their record is marked with an apple icon, and they move to the next topic. The final “essay” is optional.
Director Beverly Jones, whose background is in special education, sees advantages to this model. Students are comfortable with the technology and happy not to be in competition with peers, she said. “They don’t have to feel stressed about showing their weaknesses in an actual class.”
For senior Erik Dunhan, 20, who is a few credits short of a diploma, this approach works. “I like the sequence,” he said. “The way it’s computerized, you can’t get over it; you have to go through it. It gets tiring, but I think it’s the best way to do it.”
He attributed his newfound success to the program. “I didn’t make out until I came here,” he said. “Never in a million years I thought I’d be learning about Greece and Rome.”
Chesique Pope, 16, attended several schools before Ombudsman West, including Bartram and West Philadelphia. “I like it,” he said. “They give you something to study first. As soon as you’re done studying, you practice. So then when you go to your test, you pass.”
Senior London Eley, 17, likes being in control. She moved around during her early high school career, and then missed a lot of school when her daughter was born. She noted that the program minimizes distractions while laying out a rapid path to earning credits. With just a handful of students and few temptations, “It’s just you and your computer and going home.”
The small size and low student-to-staff ratio are also appealing. Currently, 55 students are enrolled. Each Ombudsman program has 60 slots, split between a morning and afternoon session. In addition to Jones, who also teaches language arts, there are three teachers, one each for social studies, math, and science.
Teachers received a two-week orientation from Bill Listanski, operations manager for the seven Ombudsman sites in the Philadelphia region – three accelerated and four discipline, or “transition,” schools for about 400 students.
According to social studies teacher Kyle Bowen, his job is to “walk around, monitor behavior, [and] make sure everyone is on task.” Bowen, who spent his first year teaching at a more traditional charter school, likes the model.
“I’ve definitely seen some successes with students getting credits,” he said. He attributes this to the individualized approach and one-on-one attention students receive.
One disadvantage, Listanski acknowledges, is the lack of socialization.
“Some of these kids don’t get that social interaction that you would in a traditional high school,” he said. So in late fall, Ombudsman West and the other sites began to do daily “pullouts,” or small-group lessons. These “break the monotony, because you can’t sit at a computer for four hours every day,” Listanski said.
Students also receive two-and-a-half hours per week of a curriculum designed to develop social skills. They discuss such topics as how to control their behavior and how to deal with others’ emotions.
Jones also invites in guest speakers, such as a 22-year-old Wawa manager who outlined how she gained her position of responsibility.
Jones said the current challenge facing the center is attendance, which dropped off when the warm weather hit. Still, she is hopeful. She noted that students are talking more about their post-graduation plans, which she attributes to “being in a small community and us talking to them.”
“Our philosophy is all about choices and a belief that each kid can be a productive member of society,” added Listanski. “We get to really see the difference that we’re making with this population of kids.”