TUSCON, ARIZ. — ONE student is a grandmother. Another is a precocious youngster. Several are single parents. Others have physical or mental disabilities.
These students all attend the same school, but they rarely set foot in a classroom. They may not even know what their teachers and classmates look like. As students at the Choice 2000 Online School near Riverside, Calif., they learn from home, via computer.
The nearly 200 seventh- through 12th- graders at Choice 2000 are part of a new and promising educational innovation: using computers to reach nontraditional and at-risk students where they live. The success of this cyberschool, and a handful of similar programs around the country, defies conventional notions of why students drop out and the view that computer learning is only for the well-to-do.
''The common misconception is that dropouts are dumb or aren't motivated,'' says Stephen Gardner, vice president of a Tucson-based company that sells NovaNET, the on-line educational service used by Choice 2000 and about 400 other schools in 24 states. ''Yet studies show technology is an ideal way to reach these students.''
Most schools that use computers to teach at-risk students do so in a classroom setting. But for students who, because of family or job or health or other reasons, can't attend class regularly, home-schooling via computer is emerging as an alternative.
''It's been a fantastic system for us,'' says Cindy Jepsen, who enrolled her 12-year-old son in Choice 2000 after she grew frustrated with the lack of help he was receiving for mild dyslexia at a regular public school.
Ms. Jepsen considered private school, but decided that, for the cost of one semester's tuition, she could buy a computer and home-school her son through Choice 2000. Choice 2000 is a charter school, one of several hundred publicly funded schools nationwide that have been freed from most mandates and regulations in order to encourage reform.
Although a few private, on-line home-schools exist around the country, Choice 2000 is believed to be the only public one. It accepts students from all backgrounds, including some who were already being home-schooled by their parents for religious or safety or academic reasons. Enrollment has more than doubled since it opened last year, and the dropout rate is a relatively low 15 percent. Its success has prompted several proposals for similar charter schools in California and Arizona next year, including one for a cyberschool that specifically targets at-risk students.
Jepsen says the computer program's individualized instruction allows her son to advance at his own pace and has eliminated the destructive competition and peer pressure he used to dread. She says the only thing he misses from his old school is the opportunity to play sports.
Still, Jepsen cautions that computer home-schooling isn't for everyone. She says the lack of structure - her son is ''in class,'' or on-line with a teacher, less than two hours a week - requires her to spend several hours a day making sure the boy completes his assignments on time.
''The children whose parents aren't involved are not doing well,'' Jepsen says.
Choice 2000 principal Myque Jeffers concurs that the program will not meet the needs of all students at risk of dropping out. Many kids, for instance ''don't have a strong home structure. If that was what allowed them to get in trouble in the first place - this probably won't work for them.''
THE virtual classroom also presents some unique problems for teachers, such as how to discipline students and keep them from cheating. For the most part, Choice 2000 operates on the honor system. Students are forbidden to allow others to use the student's password to log on, and tests are timed to keep students from looking up answers. Students also must come in once a year for state-mandated testing.
As for disciplining those who talk out of turn or use bad language on the computer, school officials can ''squelch'' an offending student's ability to chat with classmates on-line. ''They get very upset if that gets taken away,'' says principal Jeffers.
One group for whom computer home-schooling makes particular sense is migrant farmworkers. Children in these families often are forced to drop out of school several months a year to pick fruits and vegetables.
Some schools that target farmworkers, such as Arizona's Project PPEP, is seeking donations of used laptops to send with migrant students on their travels. And NovaNET's Gardner says that another school in El Paso, Texas, already is providing 20 laptops to its migrant students. He says having the computers at home and on the road has helped involve the students' families in their educations.
''Not a single one [laptop] has been lost,'' Gardner says. ''It's a matter of pride. Someone's trusted them with it, and they want to protect it.''
* NovaNET's Web site can be accessed at: http://www.nn.com