Last week I introduced the topic of virtual schools and I admitted that it is a challenging topic to address in the amount of space that I have. This week I want to continue the discussion by writing about two areas that I know best.
We must begin by recognizing the heart of a discussion about virtual schools is about using the ever-changing technology that is available to us to educate our young people. Last week, I acknowledged that this will include changes in our public schools as we know them. So let’s take a look at what is taking place in Greenville and I assume other area schools.
The use of technology in our local schools has changed constantly and in radical ways in the past twenty years. We began by adding computer labs and here and there a computer or two in classrooms. At first the primary concern was teaching students how to use a computer. We even had policies that things such as cell phones could not be brought to school. Technology was something about which to learn. We had not begun to grasp how it would be used to teach.
How things have changed. Today I see preschool children using some electronic device at a ballgame or a restaurant. Computers are the tip of the iceberg.
And many of us adults turn to our children and grandchildren to teach us or help us when we have problems. I know I do.
Schools have needed to adapt to these realities. Today, we are not only allowing students to bring devices to school, we provide devices to them. Teachers have had a huge learning curve as they have tried to keep up with the numerous changes. Classrooms are evolving every day. There are studies that show that students learn basic skills faster and better if they use technology to practice those skills.
These changes have given educators the opportunity to more easily tailor teaching to the needs of students. Students can learn at their own pace. And because they are so comfortable with technology, they often enjoy learning more when it involves the use of it.
Last week I pointed out that we will continue to see changes in the school day, scheduling and even attendance patterns. Beyond this, there will continue to be debates about how effective it is to allow students to learn on their own and the role and purpose of the brick and mortar schools. Some of that will need to be the subject of future columns. For now, it is important to point out that most of the local schools I know are using technology as a tool for teaching, not as something that replaces teachers or the classroom.
Last year, the school district leased space in the Satterlee School building to a group operated by the Berrien Springs Public Schools. The program is called the Michigan Virtual High School. It provides a different type of service to a small group of students who could benefit from it. The district chose to do this because it did not have resources available to equip and staff such a program.
Berrien Schools has operated regional virtual education programs that use online curriculum. Now for the second year, the aging and vacant Satterlee School building has been renovated to accommodate computers and students for a blended virtual curriculum. This program is an online curriculum that uses e2020 software not unlike that used by GPS with required and teacher facilitated oversight in a classroom setting. It appeals mostly to students who previously were homeschooled, expelled or who perhaps have dropped out or transferred elsewhere.
For 2013-14, Greenville Public Schools have formalized the lease agreement with Berrien Springs, which has agreed to enroll only students who have already dropped out of school or have fallen well behind in meeting graduation requirements. This is the second of a maximum three year agreement, which has allowed the staff at Greenville Schools time to design our own virtual programs. In the meantime, students who were likely never to graduate have new hope as they may earn a diploma from Berrien Springs Public Schools, or catch up on credits in time to return and graduate from Greenville High School. In addition, our Satterlee building has been renovated for a new purpose and we are generating rent revenues which are funding programs and program development in Greenville.
In the next column, we will discuss some of the other opportunities for students in online programs.
Janet Ralph is president of the Greenville Public Schools Board of Education.