When Houston Independent School District launched its Virtual School program in April of 2000, its goals were strictly academic.

With a diverse student population of more than 208,000 and facing a vexing teacher shortage, the district hoped the program would expand learning opportunities while building critically needed skills for the digital age.

Now, with more than 500 students enrolled, the district is reaping public relations benefits as well, as the Virtual School program is emerging as a model for other school districts across the nation.

“Providing electronic delivery of instruction over the internet renders solutions to many accessibility issues being faced by students,” says Gaye Lang, project manager. “Virtual school courses are available anytime, anyplace, and anywhere.”

Targeting students in middle school through high school, Houston’s Virtual School offers a wide variety of courses, including language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies. Houston ISD’s standard curriculum served as the foundation for the virtual school’s web-based academic program, which was developed by a bevy of well-trained courseware development specialists.

The district has since added Advanced Placement courses, “test prep,” and other college-track classes. Partnerships with Achieva.com and TestU.com have expanded the school’s offerings even further, adding study skills, college planning, and special units geared toward the state’s testing program and exit exams.

All courses are delivered in a multimedia format in real time. eTeachers go online with students to monitor their progress, answer questions, and address issues. A campus mentor is also available at every participating school.

Prior to the start of a new academic year, all students attend a special Virtual School orientation session. Online middle school students are grouped for class instruction at participating campuses.

High school students have more scheduling flexibility, enabling them to assume a heavier class load. If there is a midterm or final exam, students take the tests “live” via the internet.

The goal of the program isn’t to replace traditional schools, but to enhance student learning. The response from both traditional and non-traditional students has been gratifying, according to Lang, who notes that 90 percent of all Virtual School students successfully complete their courses.

The school also gives students from all socioeconomic backgrounds and all geographic areas across the far-flung district the opportunity to test their academic muscle against tough national norms established by the College Board and other leading educational groups. So far, 92 students taking online AP exams have scored a 3 or higher (the level needed for college credit at most universities).

And, while the Virtual School primarily serves Houston ISD students, a handful of area homeschoolers also take advantage of the program.

“Our student learners [are able to] access subject content projects that are both very difficult and very attractive to them,” says Lang. “These aspects alone have the potential to restore rigor and vigor to the student learning environment.”

In addition to gaining knowledge of core academic subjects, virtual students are also engaged in the kind of “hands-on, minds-on” interactive learning that helps them develop self-reliance and direction, as well as computer skills, according to Lang.

“Our Virtual School is ensuring that technology is used effectively to create new opportunities for learning and to promote student learning,” says Lang. “Our technology-based instructional programs are designed to improve all student use of automated information as society is being transformed from the traditional analog age to the modern-day digital age.”

While Lang says the learning curve involved in starting such an ambitious project can be daunting, she encourages colleagues in other schools and districts to get on the virtual bandwagon. She’ll be sharing her district’s program at upcoming conferences sponsored by the National School Boards Association and other leading agencies.

Before embarking on virtual schooling, Lang encourages schools and districts to develop a highly detailed project management plan and timeline that spells out all procedures, strategies, and steps needed to accomplish their desired goals and objectives.

When asked what she knows now that she wished she knew then, she laughs: “Everything!”

“Because this was a new project and required quite a bit of research, the learning curve was steep,” she explains.

Satisfaction with the program is high, however, among students, parents, and staff, and the opportunity to help bridge the digital and academic divide while giving more students access to academically rigorous courses makes Houston ISD’s effort one of the more promising in the nation.

For more information, see Houston ISD’s web site (click on virtual school) or email glang@houstonisd.org.

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Houston ISD