Transforming Old Notions of ‘Schooling’

Another one of Clark County’s many innovative ed-tech programs is the district’s operation of its own Virtual High School (VHS). Clark County isn’t unique in creating its own virtual school, but it might be one of the few school systems in the country that considers virtual instruction as an increasingly essential solution to the problem of burgeoning student enrollment.

Clark County has been offering supplemental distance education to its students for more than 20 years. The VHS project grew out of this experience, and last year the school added more than 230 full-time students to its nearly 6,000 part-time enrollments. Eight of these full-time students went on to receive diplomas from the school last spring.

All eight passed the state’s proficiency test, which was “the highest pass rate of any school in the state,” noted KLVX Director Tom Axtell wryly.

The school delivers synchronous and asynchronous instruction in a wide range of subjects–including 18 Advanced Placement (AP) courses, as well as driver’s education coursework and supplemental instruction–to students in Clark County, as well as in neighboring Lyon County.

Jhone Ebert, director of K-12 magnet programs for the Clark County schools, oversees the virtual school’s operation. She notes that giving students the flexibility to learn according to their own schedules is a key concept underlying the school, which strives to meet students’ diverse needs.

“Students want control of their curriculum,” Ebert explained. “If they want to learn it at midnight, that’s when they want to learn it–not every 52 minutes, when the bell rings in a comprehensive school.”

Improved access to educational opportunities is another hallmark of the virtual school, which gives students the chance to take courses that aren’t offered at their local schools. For example, Clark County’s Silverado High School recently had to drop its AP Statistics course, Ebert said, because there weren’t enough students interested in the course there to justify offering it. But now, Silverado students who want to take AP Statistics can do so online, through VHS.

Adapting to an online environment

Nine full-time and 51 adjunct teachers provide the virtual instruction, all of whom are employed by the district. Most are former or current classroom teachers in the district who wanted a new challenge, and so they applied to teach at the virtual school when a position there was posted.

VHS teachers go through rigorous training to ensure they can adapt to the required pedagogy and practices that teaching in an online environment requires.

“They need to learn how to communicate and create a community,” said Ebert, explaining the difference between teaching a course online versus face to face. “They need to learn how to pose questions to students, and how to get kids to work together in groups.”

Ebert said it really became apparent last year how important it is to create this sense of community online, when many of the school’s inaugural full-time students realized how much they missed having interaction with their peers.

“Creating that environment is a skill that those teachers must have to be successful; if the students feel disenfranchised, then forget it,” Ebert said.

To ensure they can create this type of environment, prospective VHS teachers are required to take 50 hours of specialized professional development that combines the shadowing of current VHS instructors with face-to-face and online training. If teachers will be developing their own online curricula, they are required to take 200 hours of professional development, which focuses on how to make online courses engaging and interactive for students.

Clark County has developed these training materials in-house, with help from the Florida Virtual School. Ebert also makes available support personnel to help VHS teachers and students adapt to an online environment.

About 70 percent of the actual VHS curriculum is developed within the district, Ebert said, and 30 percent is purchased from online content providers such as APEX Learning and The school also has students develop some of its content: Students at the district’s Advanced Technologies Academy (ATech), one of 17 magnet schools under Ebert’s supervision, have helped develop Flash-based simulations and other teaching materials for VHS’s driver’s-ed and English classes.

“They had a blast doing it–and some of the parts of the course that the driver’s-ed students liked best were developed by the [ATech] students,” Ebert said.

Driving down costs

Clark County’s virtual school isn’t just providing a way to meet students’ varied instructional needs; it’s also saving the district a lot of money. Forget for a minute the facility costs it has the potential to save in new school construction, given the county’s phenomenal growth; the school already is saving at least $3 million a year in staffing costs alone just for its driver’s-ed program.

There are some 16,000 to 18,000 high school sophomores in the county who cannot get their license until age 18 unless they take at least 30 hours of driver’s-ed coursework, as mandated by the state. Clark County incurred a one-time capital cost of $120,000 to create an online version of this course for its virtual high school. But compare this expense to the estimated $3 million in staff costs it would require to teach 30 hours of driver’s-ed instruction to 18,000 students face to face–not to mention the heating, lighting, and other facilities costs this would require.

“When you compare these expenses, you begin to see the kinds of economies that eSchooling can provide,” said KLVX’s Axtell. And that’s a lesson that is not lost on the district’s leaders. DP

Dennis Pierce

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