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Josh Ward, 17, of Akron, a seemingly typical high school senior, graduated a few weeks ago with a small class of 100. He walked across the stage in a cap and gown and received his diploma. It may seem surprising that, prior to the ceremony, he didn't know any of his classmates even though they all attended the same high school.

This is the Liberty University Online Academy (LUOA) Class of 2012. These students, hailing from across the nation, have completed their senior year of high school online, from the comfort of their own homes. The graduation ceremony was held at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.

Josh, who had previously attended Christian Central Academy in Williamsville, first heard about this unique opportunity from family friends who lived in Virginia.

The online high school is very similar to a regular high school in most major aspects. Students select the number of courses they will take each year, as well as the difficulty of the courses. The course handbook, available online, contains not only required classes but also electives. The required number of credits for graduation is 26, and this is further broken down by subject. According to Josh, anyone can attend this school if they have the financial means because, just like typical high schools, there is a wide variety of grades among students.

The most significant difference is simply that everything at the Academy is completed online. All of the textbooks are available online, along with assignments, tests and quizzes. There are teachers for each class, but their primary function is to grade the work that students turn in. Josh said that the only project he has ever been assigned was a poster, which he took a picture of when it was completed and submitted it online.

Students can choose to participate in the online schooling available through the Academy beginning in third grade. However, for high school students transferring there, most if not all of their previously earned credits will transfer. These "new" students must take a placement test to ensure that the courses they are taking are appropriate.

Josh, who transferred to the Academy as a senior, said there are many more pros than cons. Each day, he finished all of his required schoolwork in two to four hours. He said his school day usually included reading, comprehension questions and tests. This is about half the time the average senior spends at school. His homework load was minimal: only about an hour per night. He didn't have to take midterms or even final exams.

Josh said that the only con he could think of was "even though I know there's other seniors online, I don't necessarily see them every day. So it does get lonely."

Although it might seem like Josh sits at home all day, he regularly volunteers at his church and participates in clubs and other activities.

He said his favorite part of the experience was that he had "way more time to do hobbies," such as art and modeling.

According to Josh, it's especially "great for seniors," because there's more time and opportunity to work. He works at American Eagle in the Eastern Hills Mall and a local bakery in Clarence.

Josh said he was told he had "10 months to complete everything" at the outset. He started in August, so he finished school in May. He was given a "suggested planner" by the Academy to keep him on track. However, the students in this program must be self-motivated to complete coursework each day to avoid falling behind. Each quarter, Josh and his parents received a detailed report of his grades and his progress.

There are no honors classes offered at the Academy, but students who are ready to challenge themselves can take college classes online through Liberty University's EDGE program.

"While I [was] taking high school, I took two college courses in the fall semester and another two in the spring semester," Josh said.

College admissions offices may look at Josh's diploma differently than others because it is different. New York State has just passed a new law that will affect students and their decision to complete high school online. The law states that "if [a student is] coming from an online school and [doesn't] have a diploma from a New York State-accredited school, the state won't give [the student] financial aid." The scapegoat is that if a student takes a test and earns a GED, he or she can still receive that financial aid. This didn't apply to Josh, since it won't take effect until the Class of 2013 and beyond.

Josh said he believes this is the "most important thing for people to know." Although this academy is not New York State accredited, there are others that are.

Prom is probably the highlight of most students' final year of high school. Josh said he was "disappointed" that he didn't get to attend his own prom. Fortunately, he was asked by two of his friends to go to their proms so he didn't miss out on the experience.

Overall, Josh said he preferred this to regular high school, and he would do it again. Furthermore he would recommend it to "any and all" students.

Josh will be a full-time student at Liberty University in the fall, where he will continue to take online courses. He also will be doing an internship in youth ministry communications at the Chapel at Crosspoint in Getzville.

It is important to note that there are other online schooling options available through LUOA. Students can attend school and, in addition, complete supplemental courses at the online academy. For more information, find LUOA online at www.libertyonlineacademy.com or speak to your guidance counselor.

Kelsey Auman is a sophomore at Orchard Park High School.??