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VHS isn't just for your VCR


(Although I might be the only person left in the world still using a VCR!)

Our high school here is looking into the possibility of using Virtual High School, beginning next school year (if not fall semester, then spring semester). I'm intrigued and excited by the possibilities. It will give our students the opportunity to take courses they otherwise wouldn't have an opportunity to take at our high school. For example, we only offer Spanish language, but next year a student could take French or Mandarin or Russian if they wanted.

One complication for Montana students (and maybe other states did this, too) is that our state school board passed a policy a few years ago stating that Montana students can only get credit for an online course if the teacher for the course is a Montana certified teacher. A student could still take any online class they wanted on their own, but if the teacher isn't Montana certified the student wouldn't get school credit for it. I understand the desire to protect Montana teaching jobs and Montana teachers, but I also think the bigger goal should be LEARNING for our students. There are kids in tiny Montana towns - and for the target audience of this blog, let's think of highly advanced students - who don't have access to the expertise to learn at the next level in their town of 100 people. (Sometimes they *do* have that access - Any tiny town has brilliant people in it with their own areas of expertise - But my essential point is that the chances of finding a mentor on any given specialized topic in a town of 100 are far less than they are in a town of 100,000). So I'm disappointed that the unintended consequence of the policy is a restriction on the credit-worthy coursework Montana students have access to.

But VHS is aware of our state's policy on this and the two (that we're aware of) Montana high schools who began offering VHS courses to their students this school year were still able to be a part of VHS because some of the VHS teachers are Montana certified. A team from our high school recently visited a nearby school that began VHS this year and met with the teachers and students who have been a part of it. All involved were reportedly pleased and excited by the experience.

All VHS teachers are actual teachers somewhere (i.e. at a brick and mortar school), certified in the discipline they teach online for VHS. Eighty-five percent of them hold a Master's degree or higher. (And, lucky for us, at least some of them hold a Montana teaching certificate!) VHS also requires that they complete training in teaching online classes before they are approved to teach a VHS class.

I still have a lot to learn about VHS, but I'm excited about the possibilities because it opens a lot of new learning opportunities for my gifted students (and for all of our students). The kids I work with have a lot of unique learning interests that aren't always able to be accommodated within our course offerings. And they're so curious that some of them want to take more than the seven classes that fit into a high school schedule each semester. For a few years, our high school offered a couple classes during an Early Bird (i.e. before school) class period and a few of my students took Early Bird plus the next seven class periods (instead of the additional six that would've made for a typical full day). They've thrived on it and were able to prove to a couple of initial skeptics that yes, advanced students can capably handle taking eight classes a semester. Next year, due to a revised schedule, we won't have any Early Bird classes. But the addition of Virtual High School means my motivated, curious, hard working, advanced students can still pursue an extra class if they want to.

[Part of me is even a little bit jealous... Had an opportunity like this been around "way" back when I was a kid, I would've loved taking advantage of it! I never could fit all the classes I wanted to take into the limited, standard seven-period-day. I would've jumped at a window-of-opportunity to take an interesting course that was beyond the scope of that structure.]

I'm also excited about the possibilities of VHS because it might open up some windows for my gifted middle school students to take these high school courses. In the course catalog, many of the course descriptions say, "This course may be appropriate for Gifted and Talented middle school students that meet all course prerequisites." From what I've read so far, as a feeder middle school to a VHS participating high school, it seems our younger students could be a part of this opportunity. And I know I have some middle school students who would jump at the opportunity.

However, even though that might be a possibility, we're still trying to work out the details of just how all of this is going to work for us. I raised a few questions in our meeting last week (or was it the week before? things have been a little crazy...) that we don't have answers worked out on. I'm curious how any of your schools have answered these questions or handled these situations:

* If one of your middle school students takes a VHS course, does she get credit for the course when in high school? (i.e. Do you count it toward her graduation progress and cumulative high school GPA?) [For a point of reference, we usually have a handful of 8th graders who take a math class at our high school and it does count toward their graduation progress and high school GPA. It shows up on their transcripts as if they took the class their freshman year, usually reflected in a double-booked class period or as an Early Bird class.]

* We are a small enough high school that some/many classes we are only able to offer during one class period, which means a student sometimes has to choose between two classes he wants to take because they're both only offered during the same class period. Hypothetically, one of those classes could be available via VHS. In cases of such schedule conflicts, do you allow the student to take the class via VHS and get credit for it even though it's offered at your school? For reasonable reasons, our high school is going to tell the students that if a VHS course is offered at our school, they have to take it at our school. But I know that my students sometimes have to make choices between classes due to lack of repeated availability, and taking one of the classes via VHS might allow them to do both. How have your schools handled this?

* For those of you who have weighted grading systems, how do VHS courses fit into those? Some VHS courses are listed as "Honors" (as opposed to "Standard"). Do you weight their grades in an Honors VHS class the same way you do for one of your Honors on-site classes?

* Some high schools require more classes and tougher classes for those wanting to graduate with Honors (such as taking more Math, more Science, more Honors classes). How do VHS classes fit into your school's requirements in this regard?

I know what I would like to see happen here in answer to each of these questions, but I am not the decision-maker. Any ideas any of you can offer based on your own schools' experiences would be helpful and appreciated!


In our district, virtual classes may only be taken if that class is not offered in the brick-and-mortar high school. This is ridiculous, of course. Not all students need to have a teacher at the front of the room in order to complete algebra and one would think it would be better for students, teachers and district budgets to let the kids who can "get it" directly from the curriculum do that. Class sizes go down, the teacher can focus on teaching the kids who really need him/her and the virtual students can go at their own pace. Everyone spends as much or as little time as he or she needs to master the material. Win/Win, right?

Unfortunately, there's the question of what to do with the kids who finish a year's worth of algebra in February or March. Do they get a study hall then? Are they excused? Do they continue with the sequence and possibly have to quit geometry halfway through due to summer break?

(This is a false choice, actually. Virtual classes are almost always available from the home computer and can be completed as homework and during the summer, something you might bring up when faced with the two classes at the same time issue.)

We've attended full-time virtual middle school for three years and loved it. They did have one annoying habit, though. In sixth grade, Xavier finished two years of science--both the 6th grade and 7th grade courses--before he was finished with 6th grade math, so they counted 7th grade science as an elective, rather than a science credit.

This means he was required to take 4 years of science in middle school instead of the usual three. He did not get high school credit for what would have been a high school class. He'll have to repeat earth science now as a high schooler (graduation requirement), all because I didn't hold him back in science long enough so that his 6th grade math was finished first.

We have been using virtual high school classes for many years and I have seen the great and the downright awful.

We too have the bricks and mortar restriction but there are always exceptions. Since we are now on a trimester schedule this comes into play a little more often ( we're a 500+ rural school)if a class isn't offered in the trimester it is needed.

Incidentally that is another tremendous headache- if the online schedule doesn't match your school's schedule, kids can be sitting around for weeks waiting for a class to start or having finished a class and having nothing to do for weeks.

As for credit, AP classes are counted the same way that we count on site AP classes. All others are treated as regular classes regardless of what they are called. Reasoning: we don't have control of the content/rigor of the online classes so there is no bar to compare them to. We have found that there is a great deal of difference in the classes that are offered. For example we had two young ladies take Latin last year. They were extremely focused and online all the time. They were required to talk to the teacher by phone several times.We have a student taking Latin this year who has spent less than 6 weeks online (not doing this at home) who says he is done with an entire year of Latin. According to him, he only has one short assignment a day which just takes a few minutes and that's it. The two motivated students who tried to take Chinese this year dropped because they found that their Chinese teacher was teaching both Chinese and English (to Chinese students) at the same time and they often couldn't find a way to translate the slang. We have had other cases where the online teacher is not responding in a timely manner so the student has to wait and wait before being able to move ahead.

As for middle school credit, we don't currently do any online middle schoolclasses but we do have some students taking high school classes in junior high. I believe that the class shows up on their h.s. transcript and counts toward graduation requirements ( that is, if they took Algebra it counts toward math requirements but not for total credits needed) and is not counted in their culumative h.s. GPA.
Over the years, the students who have been successful at this have invariably been those who are taking AP or other upper level classes. They are highly motivated and have the self discipline to persevere. Students who took classes to fill their schedule, to retake a class because of teacher conflict or as a make up class don't usually do so well.
I would strongly suggest that however you implement the program you make sure that you have a mentor for the kids, that they can connect to or conference with to monitor problems and check progress. We dont' have that here, kids are assigned by counselors but housed in the LMC where we are told we are not resposible for them or their progress.

The South Dakota Virtual High School, www.sdvs.k12.sd.us, contracts with providers within South Dakota and in other states. The providers hire highly qualified teachers who teach the courses either via DDN or online. The majority of the courses are middle school and high school level courses. Fourteen of the courses are AP. Seven AP courses are provided by APEX.

Because of the federal focus on math, science and English, a South Dakota provider called Learning Power, which is funded by the National Math and Science Initiative, supplies seven of the courses free of charge to students and also offer a cash incentive if the student scores a 3, 4 or 5 on the exam. These seven courses are provided online only, not by DDN and are taught by South Dakota AP teachers.

As the coordinator of the Learning Power program, we have encountered many different school policies and many schools without policies. Schools in South Dakota are beginning to see that they need to jump on board by encouraging students to take online courses. Most schools protect their teachers with a policy that says if the AP course is offered in the district, students take it there and not online. I believe we will see fewer and fewer restrictions as parents come on board and ask schools to not limit offerings to their children.

Taking an AP course online isn't for everyone, and not even for every gifted student. But as a former high school gifted education coordinator and AP coordinator, I see online AP as a great opportunity for high-level learners. Please feel free to visit the SDVS website or contact me at [email protected]

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