May 13, 2010, 12:52 a.m.

High school senior Eugenia O’Kelly routinely wears her pajamas to class. Not because no one cares, but because no one can tell.

(LISA A. FRASIER/The Orlando Sentinel/MCT)

“As long as you’re wearing a shirt that looks like it could be a regular t-shirt, then they can’t really tell,” O’Kelly said of participating in an online classroom. “Or, you could wear a coat over your pajamas, if they really do look like pajamas.”

O’Kelly is one of 220 students currently enrolled in Stanford’s Education Program for Gifted Youth Online High School (EPGY OHS). Using real-time video-conferencing, the high school brings together gifted seventh through 12th grade students from around the world into a single, virtual classroom.

EPGY first started as a research project in the 1980s, when it received a grant to develop computer-aided instruction in calculus. By the late 1990s, EPGY had developed a full curriculum in computer science, physics and expository writing. Among EPGY’s most well known programs are its residential summer program and the OHS.

The OHS has expanded at great speeds since its founding in 2006. To date, it offers full-time and part-time courses in a wide scope of subjects — from “fuzzy” to “techie” — and at a range of levels — from high school to university.

The online component of the OHS depends on a software program known as Saba Centre. As described on the OHS website, the software “provides space for instructional slides, a whiteboard that both instructor and students use, application sharing capabilities for group use of subject-appropriate software, as well as text chat.”

Saba Centre also allows students to raise their hands, say yes or no, laugh and applaud.

To determine whether applicants are “gifted” enough to belong to this selective online high school, the OHS looks at test scores and academic records. Admissions officers also consider students’ personal attributes, such as determination to succeed.

“We don’t place too extensive an emphasis on particular definitions or models of giftedness in admissions,” wrote Jeffrey Scarborough ‘99, assistant headmaster of the OHS, in an email to The Daily. “Rather, we attend to demonstrated abilities and potential, as well as factors such as motivation and intellectual curiosity. These characteristics can be particularly important at the OHS, with respect to both the online environment and to the intensity of the program.”

EPGY can be seen as something of an outreach program for precocious students. In using the resources of Stanford University, the OHS provides young students a chance to take academically challenging classes that local high schools do not otherwise offer.

“When they take a course from us, they can do it in a way that suits their talents,” explained Rick Sommer, managing director of EPGY. “A lot of the kids in our program are ones who learn quickly, who in a traditional math class might be bored. In our program, they go at a pace that suits their abilities.”

While it is not uncommon for gifted youth to decide to enroll in college at the adolescent age of 13 or 14, OHS provides pre-teens and teenagers with the academic resources to live at home until a college-appropriate age.

“What we try to do — and largely succeed at — is making it so that it’s not necessary for our students to go to college before the age of 17,” said Jovana Knezevic, EPGY’s writing, development and marketing communications associate. “In our curriculum, they have university-level courses in a variety of subjects, so it’s unlikely that they’re going to exhaust their educational resources before it is time for them age-wise to go to college.”

The OHS’s system worked for O’Kelly, who chose to enroll in the program after exhausting her high school’s most advanced English classes. Looking for a challenge, she immediately jumped into the OHS’s AP English course. O’Kelly looks back on the experience as both frightening and rewarding.

“For the first three months, I thought I was either going to die or drop out,” O’Kelly recalled. “It was very intense. There were a lot of nights when I was crying myself to sleep. I thought I was going to be a complete failure. [But] after a couple of months, you just kind of get into the swing of things, and suddenly things start making sense.”

“The thought of 15-page papers isn’t daunting anymore,” she added.

Similar to O’Kelly, Maya Lewis’s ‘13 transition to the OHS’s online format was a difficult one. It took her about a year before she felt completely acclimated. A native of Texas, Lewis had only ever attended local schools. She learned about the OHS from her dad, who, according to Lewis, “read about it in a local newspaper while waiting for my grandma in a beauty salon.”

Lewis eventually thrived in the program, procuring the positions of student body president and editor of the newspaper — all of which took place over the Internet.

Still the lack of in-person interaction was the main disadvantage of the program, Lewis said. She made friends almost exclusively via Internet chat during her first two years. In her senior year, she decided to regain a “normal social life” and reach out to her extracurricular music groups.

“It’s really hard to balance a normal social life with an online social life,” Lewis said, matter-of-factly. “I don’t think I know anybody who was able to successfully be active both online and locally — people either chose one or the other.”

O’Kelly took advantage of the OHS’s intrinsic flexibility in the online format. Although the school boasts a number of rigid requirements — including a core sequence based on Stanford’s Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM) program — O’Kelly was able to design her own curriculum. When she submitted a 70-page proposal to develop an educational software program, the OHS provided her with class credit and faculty advisors.

Of course, not all OHS students follow the path of O’Kelly, who won a national competition for her project and now has a patent pending. But the opportunities are undoubtedly there.

“All that the school offers you isn’t going to be handed to you,” O’Kelly admitted. “I think you can get a lot out of the school, but you actually have to go look for it.”

O’Kelly will graduate from the OHS in June — the school holds a formal ceremony on Stanford’s campus — and matriculate into Stanford in the fall. She will join the five students from the OHS’s first graduating class who currently attend Stanford.

As one of those five students, Lewis has no regrets about attending OHS. It certainly helped prepare her for Stanford’s academic rigor. But she is nonetheless happy to be back in a social atmosphere, where she has access to friends and fun.

“It’s nice being around people again.”

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