Scouting for options: UC online program offers high school students alternatives amid coronavirus disruptions

La Jolla High School junior Lilly Grunski attends an Advanced Placement class online via UC Scout.
La Jolla High School junior Lilly Grunski attends an Advanced Placement class online via UC Scout.

For students frustrated by coronavirus-triggered school closures and looking to fulfill high school graduation and college acceptance requirements online, the UC Scout program is looking to fill the gaps.

UC Scout is an online supplementary education program that provides high school courses that students can take to fulfill a-g requirements, a sequence of courses that must be completed for admission eligibility to the University of California or California State University systems.

Started in 1999 as UC College Prep, UC Scout is affiliated with and funded through the UC system’s Student Academic Preparation and Educational Partnerships program. It transitioned to its current name and format in 2012, welcoming students ranging from “academically driven to those needing remediation,” said UC Scout outreach coordinator Priscilla Marino. It runs 65 courses, 26 of which are Advanced Placement College Board-approved.

The courses are filtered through three plans. Two of them, basic and plus, are geared for high school teachers and provide programs ranging from “video lecture content and supplemental materials to support the instruction from brick-and-mortar schools” to a “hybrid virtual model with associated tests and quizzes,” Marino said.

The basic and plus plans are free to public schools and teachers throughout California (private and out-of-state schools can buy the materials).

Marino said the third plan, on demand, is designed for students whose high schools don’t offer a particular course or who are looking to “make their applications more competitive or maybe get into the major they want.” Students enroll in a UC Scout course independently and “only need to have their school involved if they want high school credit for the transcript or if they need AP credit to graduate.” This plan carries a fee but comes with an instructor and course credit.

While UC admissions offices don’t necessarily give preference to students who have taken courses with UC Scout, Marino said the classes do fulfill the “a-g minimum requirement for admissions considerations.”

Lilly Grunski, a junior at La Jolla High School, said she likes UC Scout for the flexibility it offers.

“It’s really helpful how you can engineer your own curriculum in a way,” she said. “I like how you can go as quickly or slowly as you want.”

Lilly, who is enrolled in UC Scout’s AP environmental sciences course with plans to add AP human geography, signed on in March just after her school closed to in-person classes due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I just thought, ‘Why not make the most of … all this extra time,” she said. “I had an interest in [the class], but I didn’t have space for it in my school schedule. I want to make my transcript look as good as it possibly could.”

The UC Scout program has experienced a sharp increase in enrollment due to the pandemic-related school closures. Scout Executive Director Ehren Koepf, who noted that student numbers have risen steadily in the past few years, said enrollment is at a “240 percent increase from this time last year.”

Koepf expects the influx will go up even more as students gain “equitable access to computers and internet” and “get through the rest of the spring term.” He also expects the increase to continue over the summer.

San Diego County public school officials say blended learning — a combination of online learning with students physically attending school part of the week — is the “most likely scenario” once students return to campuses later this year. That’s
because there won’t be enough room in many schools for adequate physical distancing.

Blended learning could be the norm for as long as a year and a half, until a coronavirus vaccine is developed and widely used, according to the San Diego County Office of Education.

UC Scout English teacher Karsten Barnes is pictured during an online lecture.

Karsten Barnes, who teaches English classes for UC Scout’s on-demand program from Long Beach and has assisted in developing English courses for the basic and plus programs, said motivation and organization are important qualities for students transitioning from traditional to distance learning.

“Online students need to be more motivated because a teacher isn’t micromanaging them,” he said.

Additionally, Barnes said, “being able to advocate for yourself, being able to show the initiative or say ‘I need help’” is an important skill.

There is no application process for Scout, and prerequisites don’t require documentation, Marino said.

Barnes, who has been working for Scout the past seven of his 19 years as an educator, said he’s “excited about where Scout is going. We’re a viable option. It may be awhile before you can go back to your normal school settings. We’re here for you.”

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The San Diego Union-Tribune contributed to this report.