Monday, December 10, 2012 at 9:00 AM
Three OHDELA students — from left, Hannah Fulks, Erika Blon and Randi Beatty — sing together at an in-person practice session.
Diana Newlon sits on her living room couch leading chorus practice.
With her laptop balanced on one arm of the sofa, she looks at a screen full of videos of girls singing Jingle Bell Rock. Each girl is in her own little square, arranged Brady-Bunch credits style on the screen.
Newlon teaches at the Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy (OHDELA). And she’s the founder of perhaps the only all-online school chorus in the state, or even the nation.
[audio href="http://pd.npr.org/anon.npr-mp3/npr/wesat/2012/12/20121208_wesat_18.mp3" title="Unlikely Youth Chorus Comes Together Online"]As aired on NPR's Weekend Edition[/audio]
Other online schools have online clubs and even music appreciation groups. They have field trips and group lessons. But few other online schools -- including Ohio's largest online schools, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow and Ohio Virtual Academy -- have music performance groups.
OHDELA opened in 2001 with 37 students. As online education in Ohio has expanded, so has OHDELA. Today, about 2,000 students attend OHDELA. The school is operated by Akron-based, for-profit company White Hat Management.
Newlon’s boss, the principal of OHDELA, thought she was crazy when she suggested starting a school chorus last year. OHDELA students live all over Ohio, and take classes entirely online.
Newlon says her boss asked her, “Well, how could you do that?” He told her he didn’t think anyone would come.
He was wrong.
Even with little publicity for the chorus, nearly 20 students enrolled this year. They practice online through group video sessions twice a week. Plus they have in-person practices at least once a quarter.
Instead of lining up on risers, they use a video-chat program for the online practices.
“They’re there with their bed hair and their pajamas, sitting on their bed sometimes, so they can just [sing] wherever they’re at,” Newlon says.
It’s not perfect. Sometimes the sound cuts out or lags.
But I wondered whether a school chorus taught mostly online can work.
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OHDELA Chorus Members
Randi Beatty, Erika Blon, Hannah Fulks, Grace Hanna, Jasmine Henson, Misty Landrum, Kristine Lindsey, Jasmine McMasters, Jada Milner, Krista Proffitt, Michaela Proffitt, Victoria Reljin, Natalie White
OHDELA Chorus Director
OHDELA student Erika Blon says it does, in part because of how Newlon teaches the group.
"Ms. Newlon is an awesome teacher," Erika says. "She’s there to instruct us and if we have a problem she is right there to say ‘Ok, well say if you have problem with this listen to how I do it.’”
Erika is a senior at OHDELA and a leader of the 20-girl chorus. And yes, it is all girls, for now. The chorus is open to all OHDELA students, but the girls say no guys have had the courage to stick with it for any length of time.
“We had a guy last year. Poor guy. Poor thing,” Blon says.
Junior Hannah Fulks was excited to join the chorus. Hannah has cerebral palsy and her voice sometimes wavers.
But Hannah loves to sing. She wonders whether she’d be welcomed in a “regular” school chorus.
“Would they accept me or not?” Fulks asks. "I’m not sure. These girls all accept me like I’m just another girl, but at regular school I’m not sure if they would be this nice.”
The chorus performed a holiday concert in Akron Saturday in front of a live audience.
The performance, Newlon says, was a huge success.