PCS offers virtual high school

Published 9:51 pm Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Pike County Schools will be trying something new this year. The district has started a virtual high school that will help students who have fallen behind catch up with classmates. The program will also allow students interested in accelerating in course work take courses unavailable in a traditional setting.

Dr. Mark Head, assistant to Superintendent Mark Bazzell and director of VHS, said the program is the district’s effort to graduate more students and invest in online education. Bazell came up with the idea and recruited Head to run the new program with Jeff McClure, director of the online learning center.

“We’ve been looking for ways to incorporate online education,” Head said. “We’ve got to be willing to try new things and we have a state superintendent who encourages it.”

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The virtual high school will be more than an online program. Most of the work will be done in a classroom setting with an instructor there to answer questions as students work independently online. The instructor will also map out a plan for individual students to achieve goals and see that students are meeting their benchmarks in a timely manner.

The district will use several online computer programs to offer course work in dozens of subjects.

The district teamed up with Troy University. The university provided space for the school at the Extended Learning Center on South Brundidge Street. Students will be bused to the site for several hours a day and be allowed to work at their own pace to complete the course.

Some of the existing programs will spend time at VHS. For instance, students in Troy University’s global studies program will be able to use two days a week taking an accelerated VHS course.

“In the past, global studies students would attend TU classes three days a week for the first half of the day and did ‘cohort activities’ at the center for technology on the mornings they weren’t at TU. Now, all cohort activities will be done at VHS,” explained Head.

Any student enrolled in the aviation academy or global studies program will automatically be enrolled in VHS for the portion of the days they are not on the university campus. For all five days, students will spend the second half of the day in their normal school.

Aviation academy and global studies are the only additional programs that will run through VHS. The business and finance academy will still be on the Pike County High School campus all day and agriculture academy will remain at Goshen high.

In order to start the virtual high school, Pike County Schools had to apply for an Alabama State Department of Education Innovation Zone/Flexibility waiver.

Because the district wanted to introduce the program this fall, the application had to be in by the end of 2013.

Head noted a push for more online offerings in all of education. “We researched programs around the country, took some pieces from different programs and created our own creature,” he said.

Pike County’s program will be one of the first of its kind in Alabama. A similar program exists in Florence. Baldwin County has one, as well. The Baldwin program doesn’t accommodate students from both sides of the spectrum, those who need to recover credits and those who are overachievers.

“We talked to Baldwin County. There’s was the first in the state, but it was limited to a very small number of students,” said Head.

The school will start the year with 25 to 30 students, the majority of which will go to those in jeopardy of failing to graduate.

Head said he could see the program growing enough to eventually petition the state for funding as a separate school. By that point, the virtual school would accept students from anywhere in the state.