Staff Photo: Frank Reddy Tiffany Wong talks with son, Ryan O'Neill, 12. A Gwinnett Online Campus student, O'Neill runs a business and enjoys the flexible schedule allowed through the school's curriculum.
GWINNETT ONLINE CAMPUS
-- Serves grades 4-7
-- Accepts students who live in Gwinnett County Public Schools attendance zones
-- Registration dates: Feb. 1-28
-- Informational meeting: 7 p.m., Dec. 6 at 2595 Beaver Ruin Road, Building F, Norcross
-- More info: www.gwinnettonlinecampus.com.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- Running a business takes commitment.
Just ask Ryan O'Neill, a Lawrenceville resident who heads up a local company that sells wine-based jellies, jams and sauces.
The stresses of entrepreneurship really build up, O'Neill said, especially when you throw middle-school mathematics into the mix. The 12-year-old Gwinnett County resident has found a way to keep his business thriving while obtaining a public education.
Since 2010, the young businessman has marketed and sold wine-based spreads at festivals and online. What started as an idea became a profitable endeavor in a matter of months. The traditional classroom schedule, however, kept him from giving the business -- Saucy -- all his attention.
"Doing my (classwork) online ... it's helped me be able to balance everything," said O'Neill, while sitting at the dinner table, his base of operations for reading, writing, arithmetic and commerce, on a recent afternoon.
He's not alone.
Hundreds of students in Gwinnett County Public Schools have chosen to enroll in Gwinnett Online Campus, a new district charter school that gives students in grades 4-12 the flexibility they may seek or need. Whether it's scheduling conflicts or physical limitations affecting students, the school helps pupils meet the requirements they need to earn a high school diploma.
While the school only recently received its full-time charter status, it has been around for 13 years as a supplemental program for students in the district who need it. Recent informational sessions last week helped explain the advantages of the program to parents and prospective students.
Another session is scheduled for Dec. 6 at the school's headquarters: 2595 Beaver Ruin Road, Building F, Norcross. While the courses are taken mostly at home, the Norcross location serves as a central point for teachers to record and teach online courses and a gathering place once a week for students.
"A traditional, brick-and-mortar school works, but that setting doesn't quite work for all kids," said Jennifer Littig, a high school language arts teacher at Gwinnett Online Campus. "A lot of students have struggled to find their niche in the traditional school setting, and this is the place where they can finally thrive."
The school has 39 full-time staff members and 159 full-time students enrolled. While much of their classwork is done at home or on the road, students in the online school still have deadlines, class discussions and tests, which follow the district's Academic Knowledge and Skills curriculum, including state performance standards.
The difference is digital, said middle grades language arts teacher Dan Lollis.
"Kids carry iPhones and computers with them everywhere they go," Lollis said. "It used to be that you would come to school and all that stuff would go away. At the online campus kids participate in the ways they'd participate in the real world."
While a majority of coursework is digital, students are encouraged to attend face-to-face class sessions on a weekly basis. All students also attend testing on campus throughout the year.
Being able to hold class pretty much anywhere means field trips are easier to come by.
"We have the option to do a lot of things outside the classroom," Lollis said. "In a traditional brick-and-mortar school you're kind of limited to the classroom, the media center or the gym, but we're able to visit a variety of places like (recently) the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage center and Oakland Cemetery."
The irony of teaching students in an online classroom, Lollis said, is that he gets to know them even better than he might in a traditional setting.
"I've taught in traditional schools before, and I actually feel closer to my students here," Lollis said. "In a traditional school I would see students every day, multiple times. But because of the community we've created here at Gwinnett Online Campus, the students, teachers and parents are much closer. It feels like a team."
Principal Christopher Ray wants people to forget the notion of a single, isolated student doing classwork in their basement at home.
"Some online schools don't have the sense of community that we have," Ray said. "I hire the best staff I can find, and they create that sense of community that's right behind all of our technology."
Littig said the traditional community experience is something most students want, but not all of them are physically able to attend a traditional school.
"I have students with physical disabilities, and lasting an entire day in the classroom was just physically hard for them and not practical," Littig said. "They couldn't focus on what they were learning because it was hard just to get up three flights of stairs, so now those students are able to pursue their passions without being weighed down by the disabilities."
Added Littig: "Those students can really find a place to thrive, and that's rewarding as a teacher."
For students who don't have a disability, like O'Neill, attending Gwinnett Online Campus just makes sense.
The young entrepreneur is a self-taught expert on the jelly-making process, but said he never would have gotten as far as he has without the educational flexibility he's attained through Gwinnett Onlince Campus.
"I'm able to connect with my teachers even though I'm not there. I can stay on task, but at my own pace," O'Neill said. "I can work on making and marketing my (jellies and sauces) throughout the day, but still have time to knock out all my math classwork."