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State Lawmakers Consider Virtual High School

Celeste High School keeps its media lab open in the evening so students can complete virtual school assignments
Celeste High School keeps its media lab open in the evening so students can complete virtual school assignments

By Shelley Kofler, KERA News

Dallas, TX – Imagine attending all four years of high school without entering a classroom with a teacher. Legislation headed to the floor of the Texas Senate makes that possible by creating a virtual high school. KERA's Shelley Kofler went to Celeste in Hunt County for a preview of what some are calling the future of education.

High School Sophomore Frances Wilgus has big career plans.

Wilgus: I want to work as a professor in Paris and I want to study medieval and gothic architecture.

Celeste ISD in Hunt County credits virtual courses with helping students achieve.

But to do that Frances needs to learn French, a subject not offered at her small, rural high school in Celeste. In fact the entire school District in Hunt County has just over 500 students and the only one foreign language teacher for Spanish.

But in Celeste, Frances has another option: an online French course offered through the Texas Virtual School network.

Wilgus: Everyday I go into a tech class and log into Our teacher will tell us what we need to do and the assignment for day. Our school is so small we can't afford to have a French teacher and seeing as I want my career to involve French I really wanted to take it.

Celeste sophomore Frances Wilgus takes French through the Texas Virtual School Network.

The legislature created the Texas Virtual School network in 2007. It now offers 69 courses including drivers' education; advanced placement chemistry; sociology and courses where students earn high school and college credit at the same time.

Celeste Superintendent Collin Clark says his students now have the kind of education offered in bigger districts and students are often more motivated.

Collin Clark: Whether we like it or not Facebook and social media are the ways kids socialize today. I believe the education community must move away from the pencil paper task, and begin integrating technology into the curriculum. That's been our focus here for several years.

Right now Texas law allows students in grades nine through twelve to enroll in a maximum of two virtual classes each semester. They're taught by Texas-certified teachers with whom students converse online. Participating districts must have onsite adult mentors who approve enrollment and monitor student progress. And just to make sure the enrolled students are doing the work, exams are given the old fashion way- in a testing center where teachers or mentors can watch for cheating.

Dana Clark, a counselor and the superintendent's wife, is Celeste ISD's virtual school mentor.

Clark: There are several things we go through to make sure the student is in a position to be successful in the class. We look at their GPA. We even look at absenteeism. How serious are they about being at school day in and day out. We look at their state assessment scores.

Dana Clark says the virtual classes have been wildly popular with students who want to earn college credit while in high school. They've also been a saving alternative for students who are bored and at risk for dropping out.

Clark: It's exciting for some students to have a choice of saying, "No more do we have to do the eight periods in the classroom with a teacher but there's another way we can get our credits."

Superintendent Collin Clark with wife and school counselor Dana Clark, supported virtual courses in Celeste.

The enthusiasm for virtual classes appears to be statewide. In just two years participation has grown by a factor of 10 to some 4400 individual enrollments in Texas courses.

But that's nothing compared to Florida with the oldest virtual school program and some 220,000 course enrollments.

Florida offers virtual classes at all levels, kindergarten through twelfth grade. Its plans call for using the latest technology to create courses that mimic video games and are delivered on mobile devices like cell phones.

Sen. Shapiro: Florida has one of the best virtual school networks in the nation.

As chair of the Texas Senate's Education Committee, Florence Shapiro of Plano has authored legislation that would expand the Texas Virtual School Network by creating a virtual high school where students could take all their classes in grades nine through twelve online.

Senator Shapiro believes virtual schools will improve learning.

Shapiro: The very best teacher the teacher of the year who teachers chemistry in Brownsville can now go online and teach students across the state of Texas.

Her legislation would initially add $95 million to the state budget in 2013 because school attendance would increase, but Shapiro believes virtual schools will save Texas money in the long run because districts will need fewer teachers and fewer buildings.

Shapiro: We are no longer going to be able to afford building new buildings. It's just now possible.

But there are some concerns.

Hard, independent data to confirm overall performance by virtual learners is hard to find.

Some teachers groups are concerned about the loss of student interaction and the quality of courses.

And students like Frances Wilgus who like the virtual classes say student-teacher communication needs to improve.

Wilgus: You usually only speak through text and sometimes it will take a long time for a message to get through.

But there's no denying the popularity of virtual classes for students like Amanda Gilliam in Celeste.

Gilliam: Right now we have scheduled classes on Monday or Wednesday. If you don't finish your work you can do it at home. I'm usually at home in my pajamas doing mine if I'm not here in the media center.

The new-found flexibility has today's techie students begging for more.

Florida says it saves $100 or 20 percent every time a student takes a course online instead of in a classroom. Senator Shapiro's bill is just one of several that would expand online courses.

Email Shelley Kofler