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Steven Durham's laptop is set up on a small desk in his bedroom at home in Hammond. The high school senior gets up about 8 a.m., sometimes a little later, Monday through Friday and begins class.

Durham's younger sister Harlie, a high school sophomore, has a similar set up. She said she wakes up at 7 a.m. to start her classes, but sometimes falls back asleep, and gets to work a little later.

Over in Portage, Rachel and Thomas Kaufman, both sixth-graders, start their school day at 9 a.m. at the Portage Public Library. The pair bring their laptops, spending the first 2 1/2 hours there working on class assignments before going home for a "live" class.

High school sophomore Faith Lemmon, a Westville resident, likes the flexibility of being able to write when the inspiration strikes her. She's been working on writing a book since seventh grade. She almost has 100 pages of personal poetry and fictional stories that reflect her personal life experiences.

All five students attend Indiana Connections Academy, a statewide online public charter school, serving 4,106 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. The students come from all over the state and attend school from their homes, via computer. There are 135 full-time licensed teachers. 

Indiana Connections Academy Principal Melissa Brown said the virtual school uses a model of student support from the parent and an Indiana-certified teacher, who helps the student work his or her way through the coursework. All standards in each course are tied to Indiana state standards, Brown said.

The school offers clubs and activities that students can participate in from home, Brown said, and field trips throughout the state during the year. She said the school is not a member of the Indiana High School Athletic Association and does not have any competitive teams.

Robert Marra, executive director of the Office of Charter Schools at Ball State University, which authorizes Connections Academy, said the average cost per pupil is about $4,579 for the 2016-17 school year.

An alternative to traditional school

Dina Durham, Steven and Harlie's mother, said she enrolled her children five years ago when Harlie started sixth grade in a traditional public school in Hammond and didn't like it.

Steven is a member of the National Honor Society at Indiana Connections Academy, and is one of a group of students who participates in a peer tutoring program supervised by teacher Jennifer Drier.

He said there are many things he likes about the virtual charter school, including that work can be done at any time.

"I have live lessons with my teacher where other students are logged on, and we can chat back and forth," he said. "It's like a regular class. You can email the teacher or call the teacher. A lot of times even if you send them an email as late as 6 p.m., they still respond."

Steven, who has a 3.3 grade point average and graduates June 5, is preparing for the high school prom. He went last year and it was held in Westfield, Indiana.

Steven already has been accepted to attend Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, and is looking forward to living in the dorm and being on campus. He plans to major in 3-D animation.

In Portage, Terri Kaufman oversees the education of her children Rachel and Thomas Kaufman. They transferred to the online school this year from Portage Christian School, she said.

Terri Kaufman said their classroom is set up in the family room, and is equipped with desks and laptops.

"I really like the relearning log that students can use that allows them to answer the questions they've missed on an assessment, and use their notes or books," she said. "I love the school because it gives us some flexibility, if they've got a dental appointment or something."

Working on improvement

The online school was graded a D in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years and an F for 2015-16, according to the Indiana Department of Education.

Principal Melissa Brown said the school has developed a comprehensive school improvement plan that it is following and monitoring regularly.

"Our biggest areas of focus are on improving math scores, improving our graduation rate and on really working to engage students (and their parents) more," Brown said. "We really believe that (if) we can get a student to fully engage, their achievement will improve, which is always the goal."

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Education reporter

Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.