Much to English teacher Ed Raines' surprise, his students had never heard Puccini's soaring melodies that inspired David Henry Hwang's "M. Butterfly," nor the way Louis Armstrong could make a trumpet talk in Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man."
In the middle of a faculty meeting at Westridge School in Pasadena, he passed his colleague, a music teacher, a note. "What if we could build an entire curriculum based on pairing music and English together?" recalled Leo Kitajima, the music instructor who had visited Raines' classroom to discuss musical references in literature.
Last year, the teachers found a way to make their dream course a reality when Westridge became part of Online School for Girls, a nonprofit consortium of independent schools dedicated to educating girls. It's grown to include more than 80 schools that will offer about 1,050 enrollments this year to middle and high school students.
Paid by the online school, Raines and Kitajima built the course on their own time. Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition: The Music of Literature will be offered for the first time this fall.
Westridge is one of eight schools in Los Angeles County offering the online classes. The others are Marlborough School, the Archer School for Girls, Campbell Hall, Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, Louisville High School, Marymount High School and Yeshiva of Los Angeles Girls High School. To join, schools pay a one-time fee that's adjusted according to their size, and some help students pay tuition, which costs $1,419.75. Students outside the consortium can take the classes by paying a fee of $1,577.50.
The schools say that the cost is worth it and that they chose the 5-year-old Online School for Girls over other online options because it shares the same philosophies in teaching girls through creativity, practical lessons and by building bonds.
"In so many instances, technology is a distraction to relationships," said Jemma Giddings, Westridge's assistant head of school, but with Online School for Girls, "the emphasis is on connection and the emphasis is on collaboration. That's the intersection right where Westridge lives."
Online School for Boys will launch this fall and will pair with independent boys schools that educate their students with a focus on trust, purpose and character.
Margaret Shoemaker, director of Westridge's Upper School, said she was excited to have more opportunities for blended learning, or a mix of digital and in-class instruction, after attending an education technology conference.
"As educators, we need to decide where we fit in that landscape," Shoemaker said. "I felt like it was time to ante in or we were going to fall behind."
Westridge encourages its students to enroll in the online courses if they have a scheduling conflict or a special interest that's beyond the scope of its offerings on campus. They are taught by other independent, specially trained instructors from across the country and the world, including such places as Albania, Taiwan and Uganda. Classes are capped at 20 students each — setting the program apart from other online providers that don't limit enrollment.
Teachers upload lecture videos that students watch at their convenience. Girls complete homework assignments in a variety of formats such as audio, video or text, and upload them online. Classmates can share feedback on assignments in real time through a video chat, or by saving comments that can be accessed later.
In many cases, students take courses to "go beyond," says Online School for Girls Executive Director Brad Rathgeber. Courses such as psychology and computer science are especially popular among girls who are aiming to take Advanced Placement exams. Classes also prepare them for challenges outside of school.
Xochitl "Xochi" Green, an incoming senior at Marlborough School in Hancock Park, aspires to be a psychiatrist or neuroscientist. This summer, she said, she impressed her boss at a psychiatry internship with her newfound knowledge from an Online School for Girls AP psychology course.
"I really enjoyed the material in the class. I find myself talking about it all the time and using it," Xochi, 17, said. "Right away I could use some of the terminology I'd learned."
Online School for Girls stands out because it is specifically designed with girls in mind, Rathgeber said.
"It started with the idea that if you believe there's a power to creating single-gender classes on physical campuses, that could be translated to the online medium," Rathgeber said in a phone interview from Washington, D.C.
Not all support a single-gender model. Diane Halpern, dean of the College of Social Sciences at the Minerva School at the Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, coauthored a study that found academic performance is more closely aligned with socioeconomic circumstances, as opposed to whether a student is a boy or girl, and that single-sex education reinforces stereotypes.
"By separating them according to sex you're really acting as though all girls are the same or all boys are the same," Halpern said, adding that girls and boys alike can benefit from certain lessons. "Everyone needs to learn how to collaborate. Everyone needs to learn how to compete."
Erica Wu, who just graduated after supplementing her senior year with an Online School for Girls computer science class, said she appreciated having only female classmates at Westridge.
"The great thing about a girls-only school is that people are very open and not afraid to be judged by boys," Erica said.
But the 18-year-old didn't think it was essential to take the online classes with only girls; being behind a computer screen makes everyone more confident to share ideas regardless of gender, she said.
As a competitive athlete (she just returned from the U.S. Open for table tennis in Michigan and was one of the youngest athletes at the 2012 Olympics in London), she found the flexibility of the Online School for Girls to be invaluable.
"Online school worked perfectly with my schedule, because if I was out of the country, I could submit online. At school it fit in because if I didn't have class, I could go do computer science," Erica said.
She said the Online School for Girls enhanced her Westridge experience, but she wouldn't want it as a complete replacement.
"Online school is great," Erica said, "but there's also something to be said about being with your friends, having that face-to-face contact."