Technology is giving some local families the freedom to reinvent the high school experience.

Grace Wiley, 16, of Eagle Mountain, is a student at Utah's Mountain Heights Academy, a public high school established in 2009 that is entirely online. Going to school in cyberspace means Wiley can work as a nanny, creating a class schedule around her life instead of the other way around.

"I have a job in the middle of the day and I would not be able to do that at a brick and mortar school," she said.

The concept is gaining momentum. Mountain Heights Academy has 350 students throughout Utah, and in the fall will expand to offer seventh and eighth grades for the first time. Any Utah student can sign up. There is no tuition, it is a public school and every student is issued a laptop at no charge.

"It meets the needs of students whose needs are not being met elsewhere," director DeLaina Tonks said. "We have students who are professional actors, dancers and members of the Olympic ski team who are not able to attend traditional schools. They can still do their school work because Mountain Heights Academy is available 24-7."

The school's population also includes home-schooled children who needed options for high school and advanced learners who are not being challenged in their brick-and-mortar school. Twelve percent of the school's students are in special education programs, she said.

Formerly called Open High School of Utah, Mountain Heights is unique because there are no set class times -- students can do a week's worth of work over a couple intensive days and then take the rest of the week off, or do all their English for the week on Monday, and focus entirely on math on Tuesday. Students have the opportunity to join clubs and meet together once a month for social activities like going to the opera.

"I feel like a lot more doors have opened up to me," said Wiley, who also has traveled to Washington, D.C., and worked on a real marketing campaign with her school peers.

"I also get a closer relationship with my teachers," she said. "I've gone to brick-and-mortar schools for most of my life and I've never had such a fun relationship with the teachers. I feel like the teachers are so willing to help and so excited."

"We decided just to be brave and try something different," said her mother, Kathryn Wiley. "We really like it. I feel like it is actually easier for me to contact the teachers. She still gets grades so we can see how she is doing. It is still normal school. The only difference is that she doesn't have to sit there. There are still expectations, grades and deadlines."

Grace Wiley said being responsible for her schedule is helping her to prepare for college too.

"It is a lot more intimate of a setting because if you are in a video conference, your parents are right there," Tonks said. "You are right with the student in their home and working more in a kind of kitchen table tutoring. We hire full-time and fully certified teachers."

The school has become a national model for online programs since word got out that Mountain Heights is ranked 31st among all Utah schools for academic test scores, Tonks said.

Mountain Heights Academy is now accepting enrollments for grades 7-12 for the school year that begins in the fall. An open house will be held in Spanish Fork on Feb. 23 where prospective parents and students can see how the school works. For information, visit mountainheightsacademy.org.

caleb-warnock
-- Caleb Warnock covers 11 cities in north Utah County and is also the Daily Herald's environmental reporter. You can find him on Facebook and at calebwarnock.blogspot.com.
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