January 01. 2013 11:15PM

'Virtual classrooms' close to reality in NH

New Hampshire Union Leader

MANCHESTER - School officials are confident their plans for "virtual classrooms" in the high schools will be ready in time for the Jan. 22 start of the winter quarter.

Mayor Ted Gatsas said he's been able to raise about $37,500 from the business community; a couple of companies are willing to contribute hardware for the program.

"I think it's going to be a go," Gatsas said. "The financial end is going to be met."

Under the plan presented in November by Superintendent Thomas Brennan, the district will set up "blended" classrooms, where students can take courses through the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (known as V-LACS). The plan also calls for the creation of remote classrooms equipped with interactive video screens at the high schools, which would enable students at any of the three schools to participate in courses taught by a teacher at one of the schools.

Brennan has estimated the cost for three "blended learning labs" at $30,000 for hardware and $43,500 per semester for three lab facilitators. Equipping the remote classrooms would cost around $3,700 each.

Brennan did not return a call for comment regarding the details of the plan.

The technology initiatives are part of a multi-pronged reform agenda pushed by Gatsas following the outcry over the crowded classrooms. The issue has prompted Hooksett and Candia to take steps to sever the contract they have to send their students to city high schools.

Gatsas and district officials have presented the plan at meetings with residents and school board members of those towns. The plan has not been greeted with much enthusiasm by board members or parents, particularly activists who have called on the district to hire more teachers.

Brennan has maintained the technology program is not meant to directly address classroom crowding, but that it would allow the schools to use resources and schedule classes more efficiently.

Gatsas said along with the virtual classrooms, the district is moving forward with several components of the reform agenda.

"I think it's important that we achieve the goals we've set, getting virtual learning in place. Next we've got to achieve the redistricting and then lengthening of the school day," he said.

Amid the district's financial woes, Gatsas has increasingly reached out to local businesses and charities to support initiatives he's backed. He was able to raise $25,000 to fund a national search for a new superintendent for the district.

Gatsas said he didn't think members of the business community felt imposed on. "People in the business community have stepped up," he said.

The companies willing to supply the technology hardware, which Gatsas did not disclose, may be interested in taking advantage of the district's newly enacted policy allowing advertising in schools. Representatives of the companies have met with the superintendent to discuss having some form of advertising in the computer-equipped classrooms, Gatsas said.

The district's plans to turn to technology in the face of budget constraints and crowded classrooms have received national media coverage, with a recent article in The New York Times and a favorable editorial in The Boston Globe.

"Skeptics should give Manchester's plan fair consideration," the Dec. 19 Globe piece noted. "Done well, online learning and remote classrooms could actually enhance students' high school experience."

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Ted Siefer may be reached at tsiefer@unionleader.com.