Virtual high a choice for students
By a 4-0 vote Tuesday night, the School Committee approved the use of Virtual High School (VHS) courses for the 2016-17 school year. The courses, which are taken on a computer and taught by certified teachers from around the world, will be open to all high school students, who will have the option to sign up for a course that is not offered as part of the current curriculum.
“This is an opportunity to expand our curriculum by 150 courses,” said Steven Ruscito, director of secondary education. “My budget will include VHS opportunities for students.”
Prior to the vote, Ruscito spoke about VHS and played a short video that showed a student talking about the benefits of VHS courses. The student said it allows for convenience because students can study wherever and whenever they want and it provides an opportunity to collaborate with other students with like-minded interests.
“It fosters independence and communication,” the student in the video said. “It’s important to learn outside of the classroom because learning is a lifelong experience.”
Ruscito said VHS courses have been available in Rhode Island for more than 12 years and most districts take advantage of it. He said Middletown became the first district in the state to use VHS courses back in 2002 or 2003.
“The idea was presented to Warwick many years ago but it wasn’t the right time,” he said.
For students that wish to take a VHS course, Ruscito said one of the periods in their daily schedule would be set aside for the course, similar to a study hall. Both full-year and half-year courses will be available and the grade a student receives in the VHS course would be accepted on their student transcript.
Ruscito said VHS is student-driven.
“Students can schedule any period of the day to go to the library and work on VHS. If they choose to work on other homework and set aside time on the weekend [for VHS], that’s their option,” he said. “The value of VHS is you have a live teacher providing instruction.”
As cost, Ruscito said there are two different methods. The first is a per pupil cost, which the district would cover. He estimated that would be $400 per student. The second method is a membership cost, in which a Warwick teacher would join the VHS collaborative and teach a course, which in turn would give the district 25 seats, or allow 25 students to take a VHS course.
In the event that a Warwick teacher would join the collaborative and teach a VHS course, Ruscito said that teacher would teach four regular classes in school and then one VHS course with students from around the world.
Committee vice chairman Eugene Nadeau expressed concern with “heading too fast into a technological world without knowing what we’re getting into.”
“What is the benefit of rushing into a technological world without knowing the ramifications of what it will be when students graduate?” he said. “The more technology you have, the more it eliminates jobs necessary for students to go into when they graduate. You don’t see workers [anymore]; you see computers.”
Nadeau said technology is moving faster than teachers are able to handle.
“Then the kids have difficulty with it and don’t know what they’re doing,” he said. “Is all of this worth what we’re trying to accomplish?”
Committee member Terri Medeiros suggested finding ways to maintain the current level of staff and have teachers develop creative ways and additional courses to offer more of what is available through VHS courses.
“As we fine-tune [course] offerings, we should consider this an opportunity to find a way to meet federal and state requirements and keep our staff to do more of what VHS would provide and do it here,” she said.
Committee member Karen Bachus said VHS is not meant to replace any Warwick teachers the school department currently has.
“VHS is not a bad thing,” she said.
George Landrie, president of the Warwick Teachers Union, said he’s had experience with virtual school in the past, which he described as “an intricate and tricky idea.”
“I testified against the [VHS] idea in the [state] senate last year,” he said.
Peter SanGiovanni, a teacher at Pilgrim, said the jury is still out on VHS.
“The U.S. Department of Education said there have been very few case studies done to prove this is an effective way of teaching,” he said.
SanGiovanni mentioned a study that was done by NPR that looked at more than 300 VHS-type programs and found that not only were two-thirds of those programs not educationally rigorous enough, but that when looking at students that participated in a full-time VHS program compared with full-time classroom students, the graduation rate for full-time VHS students was less than half of full-time classroom students.
SanGiovanni also questioned how VHS students would be policed in terms of taking exams.
Meredith McSwiggan, a special education teacher at Gorton, said her experience with VHS was not a positive one.
“I had a student years ago that was a struggling student and he couldn’t get through the English 9 course. I can’t say that he learned anything by taking the VHS course,” she said. “You don’t have immediate feedback with virtual courses, which is something that’s important for teachers.”
One of the parents that spoke during public comment, who recently completed a Master of Science online degree, said he didn’t get much out of the course and received almost no feedback from non-local teachers.
Superintendent Philip Thornton said VHS would be like a pilot program, with a very small percentage of students participating.
In other committee action, a vote to determine if Toll Gate would become the home school where all Warwick students participating in the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center (WACTC) would take their classroom courses was tabled.
Bachus said she understands that students love their schools and don’t want to leave, but their education is much more important.
“There has to be a better way,” she said.
Committee chairwoman Jennifer Ahearn said she spoke with WACTC principal William McCaffrey, who told her the majority of career and tech students from Pilgrim are in the same classes/cohorts at Pilgrim as they are in courses at the career and tech center, meaning they would be traveling with the same core group of friends.
A concerned mother with a son in honors courses at Pilgrim who recently joined the WACTC program said it would be wrong for the school committee to vote on the matter without giving parents and students an opportunity to voice their opinions.
“My son found out the wrong way that he would be going to Toll Gate next year when he was doing his schedule,” she said. “How do I convince a 15-year-old that it’s in his best interest to switch schools? If you do this, my son will drop out of the program.”
A WACTC guidance counselor said she met with incoming sophomores and that many of them told her they also would not be returning to the WACTC program because they would prefer to remain at their home school.
“The stakeholders, such as parents, students and CTC teachers, need to be involved in this decision,” she said.
Darlene Netcoh, an English teacher and department head at Toll Gate, said when Toll Gate first opened, all career and tech students were Toll Gate students.
“But as time went on, the numbers dropped because students at Vets and Pilgrim wanted to remain there,” she said. “This is not fair. Parents didn’t have a chance to process and understand that this meeting of importance was being held tonight. You need to table this vote and hold a public forum on this topic.”
After hearing concerns from the public, the decision was unanimous from the committee to table the matter until its monthly January meeting, which will be held next week.