Opinion
Education Opinion

VHS isn’t just for your VCR

By Tamara Fisher — May 05, 2009 5 min read

(Although I might be the only person left in the world still using a VCR!)

Our high school here is looking into the possibility of using Virtual High School, beginning next school year (if not fall semester, then spring semester). I’m intrigued and excited by the possibilities. It will give our students the opportunity to take courses they otherwise wouldn’t have an opportunity to take at our high school. For example, we only offer Spanish language, but next year a student could take French or Mandarin or Russian if they wanted.

One complication for Montana students (and maybe other states did this, too) is that our state school board passed a policy a few years ago stating that Montana students can only get credit for an online course if the teacher for the course is a Montana certified teacher. A student could still take any online class they wanted on their own, but if the teacher isn’t Montana certified the student wouldn’t get school credit for it. I understand the desire to protect Montana teaching jobs and Montana teachers, but I also think the bigger goal should be LEARNING for our students. There are kids in tiny Montana towns - and for the target audience of this blog, let’s think of highly advanced students - who don’t have access to the expertise to learn at the next level in their town of 100 people. (Sometimes they *do* have that access - Any tiny town has brilliant people in it with their own areas of expertise - But my essential point is that the chances of finding a mentor on any given specialized topic in a town of 100 are far less than they are in a town of 100,000). So I’m disappointed that the unintended consequence of the policy is a restriction on the credit-worthy coursework Montana students have access to.

But VHS is aware of our state’s policy on this and the two (that we’re aware of) Montana high schools who began offering VHS courses to their students this school year were still able to be a part of VHS because some of the VHS teachers are Montana certified. A team from our high school recently visited a nearby school that began VHS this year and met with the teachers and students who have been a part of it. All involved were reportedly pleased and excited by the experience.

All VHS teachers are actual teachers somewhere (i.e. at a brick and mortar school), certified in the discipline they teach online for VHS. Eighty-five percent of them hold a Master’s degree or higher. (And, lucky for us, at least some of them hold a Montana teaching certificate!) VHS also requires that they complete training in teaching online classes before they are approved to teach a VHS class.

I still have a lot to learn about VHS, but I’m excited about the possibilities because it opens a lot of new learning opportunities for my gifted students (and for all of our students). The kids I work with have a lot of unique learning interests that aren’t always able to be accommodated within our course offerings. And they’re so curious that some of them want to take more than the seven classes that fit into a high school schedule each semester. For a few years, our high school offered a couple classes during an Early Bird (i.e. before school) class period and a few of my students took Early Bird plus the next seven class periods (instead of the additional six that would’ve made for a typical full day). They’ve thrived on it and were able to prove to a couple of initial skeptics that yes, advanced students can capably handle taking eight classes a semester. Next year, due to a revised schedule, we won’t have any Early Bird classes. But the addition of Virtual High School means my motivated, curious, hard working, advanced students can still pursue an extra class if they want to.

[Part of me is even a little bit jealous... Had an opportunity like this been around “way” back when I was a kid, I would’ve loved taking advantage of it! I never could fit all the classes I wanted to take into the limited, standard seven-period-day. I would’ve jumped at a window-of-opportunity to take an interesting course that was beyond the scope of that structure.]

I’m also excited about the possibilities of VHS because it might open up some windows for my gifted middle school students to take these high school courses. In the course catalog, many of the course descriptions say, “This course may be appropriate for Gifted and Talented middle school students that meet all course prerequisites.” From what I’ve read so far, as a feeder middle school to a VHS participating high school, it seems our younger students could be a part of this opportunity. And I know I have some middle school students who would jump at the opportunity.

However, even though that might be a possibility, we’re still trying to work out the details of just how all of this is going to work for us. I raised a few questions in our meeting last week (or was it the week before? things have been a little crazy...) that we don’t have answers worked out on. I’m curious how any of your schools have answered these questions or handled these situations:

* If one of your middle school students takes a VHS course, does she get credit for the course when in high school? (i.e. Do you count it toward her graduation progress and cumulative high school GPA?) [For a point of reference, we usually have a handful of 8th graders who take a math class at our high school and it does count toward their graduation progress and high school GPA. It shows up on their transcripts as if they took the class their freshman year, usually reflected in a double-booked class period or as an Early Bird class.]

* We are a small enough high school that some/many classes we are only able to offer during one class period, which means a student sometimes has to choose between two classes he wants to take because they’re both only offered during the same class period. Hypothetically, one of those classes could be available via VHS. In cases of such schedule conflicts, do you allow the student to take the class via VHS and get credit for it even though it’s offered at your school? For reasonable reasons, our high school is going to tell the students that if a VHS course is offered at our school, they have to take it at our school. But I know that my students sometimes have to make choices between classes due to lack of repeated availability, and taking one of the classes via VHS might allow them to do both. How have your schools handled this?

* For those of you who have weighted grading systems, how do VHS courses fit into those? Some VHS courses are listed as “Honors” (as opposed to “Standard”). Do you weight their grades in an Honors VHS class the same way you do for one of your Honors on-site classes?

* Some high schools require more classes and tougher classes for those wanting to graduate with Honors (such as taking more Math, more Science, more Honors classes). How do VHS classes fit into your school’s requirements in this regard?

I know what I would like to see happen here in answer to each of these questions, but I am not the decision-maker. Any ideas any of you can offer based on your own schools’ experiences would be helpful and appreciated!

The opinions expressed in Unwrapping the Gifted are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.