COLUMBIA — Nationally ranked figure skater Gracie Gold, 17, is in full training mode.
With the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships in three weeks — and the Winter Olympics just a year away — she gets to the ice rink by 9 a.m. six days of the week. On average, she spends about 28 hours weekly skating, taking ballet lessons and strength training in the gym.
It's impossible for her to compete at this level and spend all day in a traditional secondary school. Gracie lives near Chicago but "attends" University of Missouri High School, an online distance-learning service based in Columbia.
Students who have especially busy schedules often turn to MU High School because it accommodates their demanding lives.
“We have student athletes, we have musicians, we have entertainers, actors,” said Kristi Smalley, the MU High School principal. “They need a more flexible schedule around their training and practice schedule.”
Hundreds of courses in the catalog
In the nearly 15 years since the accredited diploma program began, 869 students have graduated.
Smalley said a majority of them see it as a supplement to the education they receive at “a brick-and-mortar school."
The program offers more than 200 courses with an average cost, including textbooks and materials, of around $230.
“They come to us for a variety of reasons,” she said. “Oftentimes it’s scheduling problems."
Diploma program students like Gracie Gold — and her twin sister, Carly, another promising skater — make up only about 10 percent of the MU High School population, Smalley said.
That small percentage includes homebound students with medical issues that prevent them from physically attending high school.
Many of the remaining 90 percent are seeking a customized set of classes to give them more freedom, but they might not learn exclusively online. Among them are students living in rural areas, as well as home-schoolers, who might need certain subjects to help in the college admissions process.
Others want to graduate early or take more advanced classes; still others want to make room in their schedules for extracurricular activities like band, orchestra, acting or sports.
Columbia students also sign on
Katie Raw, 17, is a senior in the diploma program who lives in Columbia. She has taken the self-paced MU High School courses for the last four years rather than enroll in a traditional high school.
Her two older brothers, Chad, 24, and Eric, 19, also graduated from the online school and now attend MU.
Katie’s mom, Kathy, said the family explored other educational options — public schools, private schools and home schooling — before choosing the online path. They decided it allowed the children to work, volunteer and manage their time accordingly.
“To me, that’s a little bit more realistic for what life in college and afterward is like,” Kathy Raw said. “It’s not always 8 to 4:30 or whatever, Monday through Friday."
A typical day for Katie Raw starts with homework. In the afternoons, she runs errands and fits in more classwork before heading to her job bottling and labeling Show-Me Bar-B-Q Sauce.
Three days a week, Katie takes history and advanced biology classes at Heritage Academy, a private school at Calvary Baptist Church on Ridgeway Avenue. Though most of her credits have been earned online, she said she finds it easier to learn subjects like math and science in a physical setting.
In addition to work and school, Katie participates in sports and church activities. She was on the volleyball team at Heritage Academy her freshman year, and she also belongs to her church youth group and the National Youth Leadership Training program, sponsored by the Boy Scouts of America. “Coed Boy Scouts, basically,” she said.
"By having online classes and those different opportunities, I’ve been able to have more friends than the common senior in high school,” Katie said.
Supplemental classes also appeal
Betsy Jones, director of guidance at Rock Bridge High School, has helped other students take supplemental courses through MU High School.
“It typically is those students who are very engaged in school and want to take care of some of their basic graduation requirements,” Jones said. “For some students, it really fits that need.”
Though the online program offers opportunities and conveniences not available at traditional high schools, there can be drawbacks. Jones said the cost of classes can sometimes be a negative factor for interested students.
“The courses are not inexpensive,” she said. “So when you start thinking about the Olympic skater, if she’s doing all of her high school courses there, that’s a pretty costly way to earn your high school education."
Kathy Raw said it was the most reasonable of the many options they explored, both in price and benefits.
“For some people, it is going to be cost-prohibitive,” she said. “Coming from the spectrum of, ‘I’m willing to pay for an education to get that flexibility that I want,’ MU High School is the least cost-prohibitive of all the options that I know of.”
Cost can be a factor
The Gold family also found it to be worth the money. Gracie's mother, Denise Gold, said it was not the most expensive online program they found. When combined with the quality and variety of courses offered, she said, the service they received from faculty and the flexible structure they needed, it was a good value.
Her daughter went to Glenwood High School in Chatham, Ill., until ninth grade when the pressures of competitive skating set in.
"It became very stressful, so we decided we needed to make a change," Denise Gold said.
Another drawback can be the lack of face-to-face interaction with teachers and faculty, allowing more opportunity for procrastination.
“As I’ve gotten older, especially this year, it’s been hard to motivate myself,” Katie Raw said. “There will be days where it’s just, ‘Ah, I don’t want to do this class right now! It doesn’t have a set due date so I can push this off.’ I procrastinate more than I probably should.”
Smalley said online learning takes “a great deal of self-motivation and discipline.”
“There’s not constantly a teacher standing over you and telling you that this needs to be due at a certain time,” she said.
“On the other hand, it’s very good at teaching kids things like time management and priority setting and goal setting. Very similar to the types of things they’ll encounter when they get to college.”
The Golds try to combine the two types of classes MU High School offers — semester courses, which follow a normal school semester, and self-paced courses, which give a student nine months to complete the work.
The semester-long courses help Gracie stay on track, her mother said. The self-paced courses give her the time she sometimes needs to complete them, especially during the busiest times of the skating season.
The course structure has also allowed Gracie to receive a lot of individual attention and interaction with her instructors and classmates, her mother said, despite the fact that the work is done online.
Though her tight skating schedule means that Gracie probably won't graduate until the end of the summer, the Gold family is pleased that she has been able to continue to train for a sport that could one day have her winning an Olympic medal.
"I think it's really been a godsend," Denise Gold said.