Sunday, June 13, 2010

Nashville's first virtual high school rolls out in fall

Classes will give kids taste of college, work
By Jennifer Brooks • THE TENNESSEAN • June 13, 2010

Metro Nashville Public Schools will open its first virtual high school this fall. Courses will be offered entirely online and accessible to everyone from home-schooled students to Metro students looking for elective classes they can't find at the school they attend.

The virtual high school is still under construction. The district has yet to decide which classes will be offered, how many students will be enrolled and how widespread the first year's effort will be.

But it's all part of the school district's long-range goal to ensure that all students take at least one class online before they graduate.

"There's an assumption that children today are completely plugged in," said Keisha Ray, director of instructional technology for the school district, who is working this summer to organize the first classes at the virtual high school.

But just because children can simultaneously text messages and play video games doesn't mean they know how to use technology as a learning tool, Ray said. Taking a class online teaches students skills that range from how to behave in a civil manner during an online chat to how to critically screen the information they read on the Internet, she said.

"What we want is to teach them the appropriate use for technology," she said. "When you think about it, every office has computers, every workplace has computers, every home, every business. …

"When you don't introduce them to their future work environments, you haven't adequately prepared them for life."

Online classes also give students a chance to work at their own pace, and they open opportunities to students who may not fit into a traditional classroom environment.

Metro set aside $556,000 to help launch the virtual high school. Part of that fund also will be used for a separate initiative to help young offenders transition back to school after they have served time, said schools spokeswoman Olivia Brown.

Most Metro schools already offer plenty of computer-based lessons that students can take at in-school computer labs. The virtual high school would allow students to take the same classes from their kitchen table.

Most colleges online

The students taking online classes in high school now also are getting a taste of what may wait for them in college.

Almost every community college and public university in the state offers online classes. The Tennessee Board of Regents Online Degree Program allows students to earn associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees from home.

At Vanderbilt University, half the students earning master's degrees in nursing are doing so online.

"You can live in another state or you could live in Franklin and just not want to drive in for classes. Or you may work all day and not have time to drive down," said Kathy Rivers, spokeswoman for the Vanderbilt School of Nursing.

The 400 nursing graduate students learning online do come in periodically for three-day "block weekends" of intensive classroom training, but the rest of the time, they're working their studies around their day jobs — some of them from as far away as Wyoming.

"People really love it," she said. "A lot of people are already entrenched in the town they live in. … To not have to relocate and still get a Vanderbilt-caliber education is really something special."

Rivers knows the advantages of online learning first-hand. After her day job at the university, she logs on for an online Spanish course offered by Nashville State. The class software even allows her to record her voice and listen to her pronunciation of the vocabulary words, compared to a native speaker's pronunciation.

"The technology was overwhelming at first," she said. "But it's just fascinating."

Teachers still important

You can take the classes out of the classroom, but that doesn't cut the teachers out of the picture.

Chris Wiley, who heads the virtual curriculum at the Academy at Opry Mills, gives his students his cell phone number and encourages them to call him when they have questions about their online lessons.

Online classes, which allow students to go at their own pace and on their own schedules, are particularly useful for Academy students, senior dropouts who have returned to earn their diplomas. Many of his students work full time, sometimes well past midnight, and can fit their classwork around their work schedules.

We've really found that most kids flock to computer-based learning," Wiley said.

The computer gives instant feedback — a little apple pops up when they complete an assignment, letting them know they're making progress.

"It really is an awesome thing," he said.

As Wiley talked, a group of two dozen Metro high-school students worked quietly at banks of computers in the Stratford High School library. It was an extended learning class — the new high-tech version of summer school.

This group consisted of students working on English, social studies and Spanish, reading materials and typing in answers and waiting for the computer to let them know if they were getting the hang of the material this time. Teachers patrolled the room, answering questions as needed.

The idea of expanding these lessons into a complete virtual high school is already generating interest, Ray said.

One mother contacted her at the start of the summer, hoping to enroll her daughter. The youngster is facing surgery and probably will miss a great deal of school. Virtual high school classes could keep her from falling behind.

Recently, Ray said, a mother withdrew a student from school so her daughter could join her on a working sabbatical to Africa. If the virtual high school had been in operation then, Ray said, the student might not have had to miss that semester.

"Next year, that parent would be able to enroll her in a virtual classroom, missing no credits, missing no school," she said.

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