Virtual High School courses offer extras for students, insight into demand

Virtual High School courses offer extras for students, insight into demand

Students and teachers are seeing the benefits of boosting the existing curriculum with online courses, which have, in turn, even prompted changes within the school walls.

Take the science program at Lincoln High School. Prior to the integration of Virtual High School classes into the school day, there were no bioethics or Advanced Placement physics classes.

But when enough students started expressing interest, even more than their allotted VHS class spots could accommodate, the district took action.

"We ended up having the district hire someone," said Melinda Smith, the former Lincoln curriculum director and current North Providence school superintendent, to teach the classes full-time.

In her first year as superintendent, Smith has already implemented a VHS pilot program at North Providence High School.

Now, 10 NPHS students each semester join the ranks of more than 16,000 students in 39 states and 39 countries worldwide enrolled in classes run by VHS, a nonprofit Massachusetts-based company founded in 1996 that has since grown to include more than 700 schools, including 21 in Rhode Island.

"We're really about quality online teaching and learning," said Cheryl Rosenberg, VHS spokeswoman who hosted a discussion forum at LHS last month.

Teachers come from participating schools, who receive tuition discounts - $3,450 per year instead of $4,500 for the most basic plan - for allowing one of their trained teachers to commit to teaching VHS one period of the day. They are required to log in once a day, and answer questions within 24 hours, Rosenberg said.

Students taking a VHS course essentially work a library period into the day's schedule, when they are able to access the course on a school computer under the supervision of a site coordinator, though off-site computers can also be used. It is up to the school, Rosenberg noted, to grant credit and diplomas based on a student's VHS grades.

Patricia Vivari, VHS teacher and LHS site coordinator, explained that Lincoln chooses not to offer any VHS courses that the district does, including credit recovery. Rosenberg said while 150 electives, 20 AP courses and credit recovery programs are available, individual districts decide on their own what to offer students.

AP teachers are AP Institute-trained, Rosenberg said, and VHS students exceed the national average for passing AP tests, with 71 percent, compared to 59 percent, scoring a 3 or higher.

For NPHS students enrolled in VHS, the program means having access to AP courses - something not currently offered in the district.

But that will change, Smith said, explaining that plans are already in place to train teachers this summer to meet the needs of students looking for advanced classes that can transfer as college credits.

Having the classes is also driving the need for more up-to-date technology in North Providence, something Smith has been pushing for since day one. Graphic cards, quicker processing and a beefed up infrastructure were upgrades that had to be made to accommodate VHS students, especially those taking classes about computers.

Smith said she hopes to double the number of VHS seats next year. By then, she said, the technology woes should be fixed.

VHS has allotted 10 spots for North Providence each semester in a student-only membership. Similarly, North Smithfield purchases six individual seats each semester.

Cumberland, Lincoln, Woonsocket and Ponagansett High Schools each have teaching memberships, meaning a district teacher teaches a VHS class in their subject area, though not necessarily one taken by a district student.

Cumberland and Lincoln each have two memberships, sharing 50 seats per semester amongst the high schools and middle schools. Woonsocket also has two teaching memberships, but with a reduced seat commitment of 20 seats per semester.

Students need to be "self-directed," Smith said, to keep themselves on track with the weekly schedule even if peers take a long weekend for a Monday holiday.

But when that dedication means learning about international classmates' cultures and ways of life, or even just collecting soil samples from around the world for an environmental science class, it can be an easy sacrifice to make, Rosenberg said.

"I think there's a lot of value for students that are in this global environment," she said, all without leaving the comfort of their own schools.