County’s Virtual High School sees record enrollment

August 10

At the beginning of the summer, Christine Ocalan, a senior at Forest Park High School in Woodbridge, needed just two classes to graduate. Not wanting to spend her summer sitting in school, she enrolled in Prince William County schools’ Virtual High School and took her English and government classes online. She graduated last week.

Ocalan was one of a record 955 students who enrolled in Virtual High School this summer. Through the program, students can follow a flexible daily schedule to complete their coursework online.

“I could control when I went” online, she said. “I woke up . . . around the same time that school started so that I could just get it out of the way, and then I’d have the rest of the day to hang out with my friends. I really didn’t lose much of my summer with the Virtual High School.”

Gina Jones, administrative coordinator of Virtual High School, said that the program gives students the flexibility to complete coursework around their job, activity and vacation schedules.

“They work from any location with Internet access,” she said. “We’ve had students work from Olympic training camp, vacation, summer camp. Sometimes there are custody situations where they’re living in another state with another parent, [or in] other countries. Anywhere they can access the Internet, they can access our course.”

Christine Ware, who teaches the economics and personal finance class online, said Virtual High School “gives students a lot of flexibility, especially in the summer, because they can be making room in their schedule for something that they want to take during the school year, like . . . orchestra and band — whatever they’re interested in.”

Jones said the program is well suited to Prince William, which is home to many military families. “We do have a lot of students who are moving in and out throughout the year,” she said.

A former social studies teacher, Jones has been involved with Virtual High School, which also offers classes during the academic year, since the program began in 2000 — first as a teacher and then, since 2003, as the program’s coordinator. She said that more than 10,000 students have completed online courses over the years. With its record enrollment this summer, Virtual High School is on track for 1,500 enrollments this year, she said.

The program blends online learning with some face-to-face contact between teachers and students, Jones said. Students and their parents attend an orientation session to meet the teachers and learn about the program. They also take three tests in person — the midterm exam, SOL test and final exam. Students who are out of town may arrange to take the tests with an external verified proctor, she said.

The teacher provides a live lesson each day, using a software program that is “like a secure online classroom,” Jones said. The teacher and students can see each other and communicate in real time, and the sessions are recorded and archived, so the students can look at the session later if they are unable to participate at a certain time.

“One of the strengths of our program is that there’s the human factor,” Ware said. “It’s not just working on a computer program and there’s nobody on the other end. So they can be there with me live, asking questions as I’m talking. Or if it’s not a time they can be there, then they also have the flexibility to go back and listen to the recording whenever they want, as many times as they want.”

Jones said that Virtual High School offers 23 classes and that all the summer classes typically fill up. The most popular online summer course, she said, is economics and personal finance, a required class for graduation that had 150 enrollees this summer.

“It’s very well suited to the online format because so many people do things with their finances online,” Jones said. “They’re filling out loan applications online, they’re banking online, and so students are really learning those tools by taking economics and personal finance online.”

Kayla Sriver, a rising junior at Patriot High School in Nokesville, needed to take a required world history class after moving from another school system. She decided to take the class online and was surprised to find that she liked it.

“At first I thought I wasn’t going to enjoy it, because I procrastinate a lot,” she said. “But I actually got my work done every day. I actually did not like history before that class. But during this class I was telling my parents all about the stuff I was learning, and I was having a lot of fun with it.”

She also liked the real-time interactions with teachers. “If you had any questions, they were right there, and you didn’t have to e-mail them and wait for them to e-mail back,” she said.

Ware said that online learning requires a little more maturity on the part of the students.

“If I had students in the classroom and I’m talking to them about the assignments they’re going to work on, I could see in their eyes if they’re confused, or I could see that they’re sitting there and not working,” she said. “Sometimes it’s harder to know if they’re not getting things done because they’re having questions, or if the challenge is just that they’re not having the self-discipline to get their work done.”

Jones said 91 percent of Virtual High School students pass their courses and 94 percent pass their SOL tests, which she said is comparable to the pass rates in traditional classrooms.

Registration for the program’s fall semester opens Wednesday. Students may register through the Virtual High School Web site, virtualhigh.schools.pwcs.edu.

Barnes is a freelance writer.

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