(TNS) — This is what Sharell Latimore fears: That she'll graduate from Atlanta's Crim High School, enroll in college and find out she's "the dumbest one there."
Crim is one of two Atlanta high schools that switched over the past two years from classes taught by teachers to "blended learning," where students sit in classrooms clicking through online lessons as teachers supervise.
Advocates say this lets students learn at their own pace and get help from a teacher when they need it. Atlanta's West End Academy, another alternative school, has successfully used blended learning for more than a decade, school staff say.
But the results from Atlanta's latest and largest move to teach students who have struggled in traditional classrooms through online instruction have been decidedly mixed.
Both Crim and the other blended-learning school — Forrest Hill Academy — are alternative schools. Crim serves students who haven't succeeded in their home schools. Forrest Hill serves students referred for discipline problems.
The switch means "we're basically just teaching ourselves," Latimore said. "We're teaching ourselves something we don't know."
Most school districts nationally use some kind of online learning to help students make up credit in classes they failed. But blended learning is one of the newest trends in online instruction. Enrollment in blended-learning schools has risen more than fivefold in the past five years, according to a recent report from the University of Colorado's National Education Policy Center.
After the move to blended learning at Crim, students are passing more classes. The school's graduation rate doubled last year. But at the same time, more students are skipping school and being suspended. And Crim has faced allegations of cheating and grade-changing in the online courses.
At Forrest Hill fewer students are passing. But attendance rates are up, and suspension rates are down significantly.
It's hard to say if the rising pass rates at Crim mean students are actually learning more than they did in traditional classrooms. Usually state test scores would show whether students were learning more, but recent state test changes have made comparing results from different years difficult.
Atlanta Public Schools high school supervisor Timothy Gadson, one of the architects of the move to blended learning, said at least at Crim, the switch is doing what it was supposed to: Meet students where they are and get them on track to graduation. At schools like Crim and Forrest Hill, where students arrive at widely varying levels, blended learning makes sense, he said.
Some teachers at Crim have a different view. Some students have Googled their way through classes, learning little besides how to copy and paste from a web browser, teachers have told the Atlanta school board. And earlier this year, students used a staff member's log-on information to change grades and grading criteria.
"They're exploiting the children," said former Crim teacher Phyllis Gray. "An online course should only be for children who can handle working independently and at an accelerated pace."
A recent American Institutes for Research study of students who failed Algebra I as ninth-graders and retook the class through blended learning or a traditional class raised similar questions about whether blended learning works for students who are struggling. Students in the online course had lower grades, lower pass rates, and lower scores on an end-of-course test. And students in the online course reported less confidence in their math skills.
"For students who have fallen very far behind ... our results suggest there should be a lot of scrutiny about whether it's wise to use online credit recovery that requires students to be self-motivated," said Jessica Heppen, one of the study's authors.
Recently at Atlanta's West End Academy, which has used some form of blended learning for more than a decade, Jasmine Gilmore was one of eight students studying physics, environmental science and anatomy in a single classroom. As some worked on computers, she illustrated a paper and colored-pencil report on the systems of the body. Students at West End can do a significant amount of offline work, including science labs and reading assignments.
Gilmore said she liked classes at West End better than her earlier high school, Therrell.
"I like to do it myself," she said.
Down the hall, teacher David Steele supervised a handful of students who were writing notes during online lessons, helping students with questions one at a time. Usually his classes have 10-15 students, but by this end-of-the semester week only a few still had work to complete.
Blended learning has its advantages, Steele said. "Instead of cutting corners, we cut out fluff," he said. Students in classes like his may miss out on the benefits of the dialogue among students and teachers in a well-run classroom. But blended learning lets students go over and over a lesson until they learn, he said.
"It serves a purpose," he said.
©2016 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.