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Implementing the Virtual High School Program: Online Learning for the 21st Century
by Bryan Olkowski


Happy Thanksgiving!  I hope you are all getting ready to eat turkey and see your families over the next few days.  I also hope you are beginning to consider the possibilities of starting an online program at your school.  During the 2010-2011 school year, I had the honor of starting an online program known as Virtual High School.  The program is one of the premier online virtual programs in the country.  There are hundreds of courses students can choose to enhance and extend their learning opportunities.  Schools typically use Virtual High School to supplement their core curriculum.  Other schools use Virtual High School to offer courses not currently available at their school.  There are hundreds of online courses to choose from in every subject area. 

How The Program Works

In order to start the program, a school needs to first determine who will become the Site Coordinator and who will become the certified online instructor.  Virtual High School offers training in both. Upon completing the training, the educator will be considered certified to teach online courses (in their subject area) by Virtual High School.  The teacher training occurs online and involves over 100 hours of coursework. The training happens over 8 weeks during the summer or 10 weeks during the Fall/Spring Semester.  The Site Coordinator Training, while less intensive, occurs over a 4 weeks period and is around 40 - 50 hours of coursework.  It is necessary to ensure that an adult is identified who is committed to learning something new and will be available to teach a VHS course at your school during the school year.  When selecting a member of your staff to become a certified online instruction, I would strongly recommend someone who will be in your school for the long haul. - The certification training is a one-time fee for each adult.  This means that if the teacher leaves your school, you will have to find someone else to go through the training and pay VHS for it again.  Considering the current state of our economy, it is important to ensure that the adult selected will be around for many many years.  Virtual High School requires at least one certified online instructor teach one online course per year in order to receive a special discount for student seats.  Virtual High School charges per student, but the fee is MUCH lower once a teacher teaches an online course.  Virtual High School also requires every school to have a Site Coordinator.  This is a one-time fee.  This means that if someone leaves the school, another person can become the Site Coordinator at no additional costs.  I have taken both courses and have found them to be extremely helpful - especially when talking to parents and creating a vision for the program at your school.  One item I really enjoyed learning was how to impersonate students in your school who are enrolled in a class.  As Site Coordinator, I have the capability to monitor exactly what work students are doing and what they are posting to class discussions.  I suggest letting students know that you have this capability before they enroll in a course - this will limit the amount of interventions, you as the Site Coordinator, will have to make throughout the year.

Setting the Program Up

A big component to the Virtual High School Program, as with many successful online programs, is that you can customize it to fit what you want the program to do.  At Scofield Magnet Middle School, we determined that students who need to be challenged beyond the curriculum should be taking these courses.  We also decided that students should be selected according to how well they met the state standards in Reading, Writing, and Math on the Connecticut Mastery Tests.  We held an informational meeting for all students interested in the program.  Took down their names and then selected the top performing students in the building (as measured by the state exams).  We also created a waiting list for students as not everyone wanted to enroll in a VHS course. To take an online course, one really needs to be a motivated and independent learner.  Consequently, we selected 8th graders as we felt they had the greatest amount of maturity.  

The next step was selecting courses, which could possibly be accepted for high school credit.  As a Middle School Administrator, I contacted the local high schools to provide feedback as to determine exactly which courses my school should offer. We did not want to offer core courses, which were already going to be provided at the local high schools. Instead, we selected semester courses in Language Arts and Social Studies, which would not interfere with the high school course continuum in these subject areas.  One high school, already offering Virtual High School, immediately informed my school that we could let parents know that successful completion of one of these courses would help the student gain high school course credit.  When explaining the possibility to parents that their middle school child could gain high school credit by enrolling in this program, applications went through the roof! We ended up getting over 45 applications for 20 seats.  

Once selecting the students, I determined that parents needed to attend an orientation to Virtual High School.  I showed them the online learning platform (Desire 2 Learn), and demonstrated how a class works and how I could impersonate a student.  Both my two Site Coordinators, another certified online instructor, and I answered questions.  We gave a choice of classes for students to choose, enrolled them, and the rest is history. Scofield Magnet Middle School became one of the first middle schools in Connecticut to offer high school credit in middle school using an online learning program.

Final Thoughts/Points of Information

After taking the certification courses, selecting the classes (in conjunction with high school input), and educating parents about online learning, the program really begins to run itself.  I found it extremely easy to work with Virtual High School administration to answer questions and troubleshoot problems whenever they arose.  The staff at Virtual High School was very helpful in pointing me in the right direction.  Furthermore, because I am a Connecticut public school educator, I was able to enroll my school in the Virtual High School Program through a Connecticut educational agency known as CREC (Capitol Regional Education Center).  By working with this agency, I not only gained additional insight into set-up costs, and implementation ideas, I also learned about other online learning opportunities.  Almost every state in the country has such an agency.  I highly recommend getting in contact with them to learn about the online opportunities they may have available for your school. 

Finally....

Scofield intends to expand upon the Virtual High School Program this school year.  The program was initially funded by a grant, which has now expired.  However, because parents enjoyed the program so much at my school, the school's PTP (Parent Teacher Partnership) agreed to fund the program this school year.  We look forward to offering another high-achieving group of 8th graders to take Virtual High School courses next Spring for enrichment.

I hope you and yours have a happy and safe Thanksgiving! If you have any questions or wish to share your experience implementing/using an online program at your school, please feel free to contact me. I look forward to hearing from you!

 


About Bryan

Bryan Olkowski is a former high school Social Studies Teacher and ELL Central Office Administrator who currently serves as the Assistant Principal at Scofield Magnet Middle School. He enjoys working collaboratively with teachers and administrators to integrate educational technology into classrooms to provide more opportunities for students to learn. He has also worked on creating educational exchange programs with schools in China. You can reach Bryan at bolkowski@ci.stamford.ct.us.




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