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N.H. Online Charter School Growing By Leaps And Bounds

Sam Evans-Brown

Nearly every school in the state has students like Tristan Quismundo. He goes to high school in Londonderry and failed English his sophomore and junior years.

“I kind of just get distracted, and wander off think about other things, ‘cause I don’t really find English literature that interesting.”

But as of 2008, students like Quismundo have another option. Now he’s a senior, and instead of just making another go at the classroom, he signed up for VLACS, the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School.

Chances are good that you’ve never seen or heard of VLACS, the state’s online charter school, but it’s the largest high school in the state. More than 12,000 students in New Hampshire are taking at least one class from the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School or VLACS. It started in the Exeter School district, but before long its founders decided to take it state-wide. The school has been growing quickly since 2008 and it’s available for free to any student in the state.

Quismundo says it works better, “because I like go at my own pace, I don’t have to like sit through a class for 45 minutes and just listen to a teacher. I can do about ten minutes and then go off and do something else like youtube or play a game… come back, finish it up.”

About a quarter of VLACS students are like him: public school students making up for classes they failed so they can walk across the graduation stage with their classmates. Another nearly 20 percent of enrollees are from the other academic extreme: kids looking to graduate early, take courses not available to them in their school, or earn college credit.

And the final big chunk of students is like Shelby Moore.

“I would spend the mornings in my house, usually in my pajamas,” she says.

At first Moore was homeschooled, and took a few classes online. She then became one of about 160 full-time VLACS students, and was in one of the school’s first graduating classes.

Students like Moore are driven and motivated, and are getting through high school with only the occasional nudge from a disembodied teacher. She remembers her time at VLACS fondly.

“I actually went to college with 21 credits, so I was able to experience what the college workload was like from home,” she says.

Fueled largely by these three types of students, VLACS has grown precipitously in the six years it’s been around – an average 24 percent per year over the last five years. In its first semester, 700 students completed half-credit classes; this year they are up to more than 22,000.

That means that per capita, New Hampshire has more students in online classes than any state except Florida, and nearly every high school in the state has at least one student taking a class. It now offers more than 100 classes and employs more than 160 teachers, all of which are either state certified, or on their way to certification.

Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR

Online, But Face-to-Face

Those who were teaching during when VLACS started out, like Ollire Lane-Wortley, say it was like building an airplane while it was flying. “It was crazy because I was maybe one lesson and assessment ahead of my students,” she remembers.

But there is a sense at VLACS that they are part of something historic: a reimagining of the way school works for these certain kinds of students.

“Through the time I’ve been with VLACS, I know these students better, in many ways, than I ever did with the students in my bricks-and-mortar school,” says Lane-Wortley, “and most of the students, I’ve never seen them.”

This is something you’ll hear over and over in speaking to these online teachers. They say that yes, often the students are just going through the online curriculum on their own, but when they do talk to their teacher, it’s always one-on-one.

“Can you guys here me now?” asks Lisa Kent, a physical education teacher and administrator for the school, as she tries to establish the connection with one of her students.

After a few false starts the voice of Steven Baird, a full time VLACS student from Hancock, crackles over her laptop speakers.

“Good Morning, rise and shine!” Kent responds enthusiastically.

Teachers schedule a meeting every month where they touch base with their charges and the student’s parents. They use big, white headphones that look like something a DJ in a Miami Beach club might wear, and connect over a program similar to Skype.

On this morning, Kent and Baird are also doing a kind of oral quiz, which are a big part of every course.

“Did you find that connecting the learning to your real world experience helped the learning to seem more meaningful to you?” she asks

“Yes and it also seemed more exciting and easier when I was putting it off on real world examples,” he responds.

VLACS teachers build their own schedule. When they aren’t in these pre-scheduled online meetings, or grading exams, VLACS teachers have daily “office hours,” which are sometimes late in the evening. They log into a digital classroom and are available to answer questions. Throughout the day they are responding to questions over email or instant messenger, or prodding students who aren’t getting their work done fast enough.

‘The Best Way To Learn?’

Pauline Landrigan, an English Teacher with VLACS, says under this system she’s spending all of her time helping students sort through what’s confusing them, instead of just standing in front a blackboard.

“I taught in traditional schools and I got lured here, and I came kicking and screaming because I said ‘there’s no way kids can learn in a virtual world, got to have that face-to-face.’ Well, I’m now here because I believe this the best way to learn,” she says in between shooting off notes to her students.

The teachers believe in this, despite the fact that their student teacher ratio is around ten times that of a standard public high school. But looking just at that number may not capture how similar the work-loads really are between his teachers and traditional teachers.

“If you think of a high school where you teach five courses a day, and then you may have between 25 and 30 students.  You’re going to have… if it’s 20, you’re going to have a hundred kids; if it’s you know 25, you’re going to be 125 and in many schools you may even have more,” says Steve Kossakoski, VLACS’ principal and founder.

And really, comparing virtual and public schools by just their student teacher ratios, isn’t very meaningful; better is to look at their outcomes. VLACS does gather has a lot of data that suggests they are doing a good job, and we’ll get into that tomorrow.

But it doesn’t work for every student.

“I missed being in school, I liked being around people,” says Cora Kennard who was full time with VLACS for one year in 6th grade. She one of only a few middle-schoolers using the program. For her taste, VLACS didn’t dig as deeply into the subject matter as she would have liked. “I could go back and re-read some of my notes and not remember any of it, because they didn’t spend much time on it, and you didn’t need to read through completely thoroughly to pass the quizzes. So definitely didn’t take as much from that grade as I did some of the other grades.”

Her opinion might be in the minority. 84 percent of parents of VLACS students surveyed say their child found classes to be as hard or harder than traditional school.

But her experience does get to the central question for any online school: are the kids learning, and are they learning as much as they would if they were in a regular classroom?

Tomorrow, we’ll go into why that’s a pretty difficult question to answer. 

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.
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