(TNS) — Piedmont High School didn't make Christopher Ray take summer school classes.
He sought them out.
Specifically, online courses in French, health, Spanish and science; enough to offer the more flexible schedule the 17-year-old wanted during the regular school year.
"Normally I have theater and marching band and I work as a peer helper at the elementary school," Ray said.
Piedmont High is set to expand its online classes this school year -- enough to cover nearly every course offered, giving students more flexibility, choice and the opportunity to finish school faster. Piedmont's expansion comes as a state law takes effect that requires all Alabama school systems establish policies to offer some level of virtual school by the start of this school year.
Now in its third year, Piedmont's online program offers high school students virtual courses that they can take at school or at home with laptops provided by the system.
"This year we've expanded to some general core classes," said Superintendent Matt Akin.
Akin said that with the expansion, the high school will offer all of its classes online except for college-credit AP courses and extracurricular classes like band.
"All of our kids take at least one online class," Akin said.
Akin said the online program gives students flexibility in their schedules. Some take the courses later in the evening, allowing them to leave school early to work part-time jobs. Other students choose to sleep in and go to school later in the day, then take an online course to make up the difference, he said.
Meanwhile, the program helps the system offer courses it would be unable to otherwise, such as certain foreign languages, because it doesn't have the needed faculty, Akin said.
"And if you have more students taking classes online, it frees up instructors to expand their curriculum more, arts, robotics, coding, just a variety of things," Akin said.
Piedmont's online program isn't costly either, Akin said.
The system spends $4,000 annually to supplement the salaries of two teachers who monitor the online students weekly. The program itself is an extension of the system's technology initiative. Piedmont spends about $175,000 annually leasing laptop computers for all its students.
The growth in Piedmont's online program comes as the state mandates all school systems in the state prepare some type of online course policy this year. About a decade ago, the state launched its ACCESS Learning virtual online program -- a free service available to school systems.
Larry Raines, ACCESS administrator, said that since the online class mandate law was passed last year, his office has seen increased interest from school systems.
"We've had a good number of calls about it ... they were asking what they needed to do to develop a policy," Raines said.
According to ACCESS records, around 23,000 students in 134 school districts used the state program last year. Raines said the Anniston, Oxford and Jacksonville school systems all use ACCESS.
"We started out by offering courses to schools that didn't have teachers to teach," Raines said.
Robin Kines, principal of the Calhoun County alternative school, said the county school system is set to offer ACCESS classes to its high school students this year. Kines said ACCESS offers courses not available in county schools, such as marine biology and certain foreign languages. It'll also give students the ability to graduate early if they choose, she said.
"We're really excited about having this to offer students," Kines said. "Some students are not gearing to the day-to-day schedule, so this will help them thrive."
Madison Goodgame of Piedmont decided to take enough online courses to graduate early this year. At 17 years old, she plans to attend the University of South Alabama and major in biomedical science.
"I thought they were really great, honestly," Goodgame said of her online classes. "Everything is moving to online anyway ... Piedmont is really good about that."
©2016 The Anniston Star (Anniston, Ala.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.