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January 16. 2013 11:22PM

Mark Hayward's City Matters: Getting schooled outside the classroom


 

Manchester teenager Allie Nault has done her part, in a small way, to ease the crowded classroom situation in the city high schools.


In the fall, she dropped out of her freshman science class at West High School and pushed her educational frontier into cyberspace. Now, she learns concepts such as energy and electrical current through her desktop computer at home, thanks to the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School; VLACS for short.

The virtual classroom has been embraced by Mayor Ted Gatsas, whose enthusiasm prompted him to line up private-sector donors to beef up high school computer labs to accommodate virtual learning. Sometime next week, computer labs in the city's three high schools should be retrofitted and ready for VLACS.

"The stuff I'm learning here, I'm learning in more detail than in class," said Nault, who switched for scheduling reasons.

VLACS is not a video classroom where students watch a teacher in some far-off classroom. Rather, it involves lessons, most of which must be read, enhanced with computer graphics.

For example, a graphic can illustrate the movement of electrons when it comes to electrical current.

A conductivity lesson involves Nault using her cursor to move images of electrical leads over images of various materials.

Nault said she's never learned material so easily. And if she's stumped, she can email or even telephone (so passé) her teacher, who works out of her home in Windham.

"Ten minutes later, I have an answer," Nault said. "That's a lot faster than in school, when I have a question in math, and she (the teacher) has to answer 20 trillion other questions."

Get ready for virtual learning, Manchester. Manchester students are currently enrolled in 555 VLACS courses. The mayor loves the idea. And city businesses have ponied up some $37,000 to jump-start it.

But VLACS will not likely be as easy or transformative as its supporters expect. After all, this is Manchester, where nothing new happens without a fight, and politics is as popular a sport as Central football.

Consider:

-- Bandwidth. Nault said she doesn't go virtual at West; Internet speeds are too slow. By the time she loads a browser and then VLACS software, she has 15 minutes for a virtual lesson.

Gatsas said he doesn't know the reason for slow Internet speeds.

He said the contributions used to fit up high school computer labs can be used to improve bandwidth.

-- Dropping out. Manchester students don't do too well in the virtual ed world. According to VLACS, only 62 percent of Manchester students completed their VLACS courses, compared to 81 percent statewide.

Steve Kossakoski, chief-executive of VLACS, said he can't explain the discrepancy but hopes the rate may improve with in-school labs.

-- Teacher push back. Teachers' union President Ben Dick said he understands students have different learning styles, and VLACS may work better for some students. But he worries virtual learning will replace traditional classrooms, teachers will lose their jobs, and kids will be forced into a learning style that doesn't work for them.

Most students, he said, need a teacher to keep them on task.

"I'll be willing to bet I interact with students better than the computer screen does," Dick said.

-- Uncertain finances. Right now, there's no reason for the mayor not to love VLACS. A state fund dedicated to charter schools covers the cost of the 555 courses that Manchester students now take, while the city treasury continues to receive state adequacy aid for students taking those courses.

But school officials are good at bean counting, and this won't last forever. Manchester will eventually have to start paying for the virtual courses, which amounts to about $900 for a full-year, one-credit course.

-- Teacher pay. Dick said his labor-oriented concerns would go away if Manchester teachers could teach Manchester kids who opt for VLACS. The 13 full-time VLACS instructors currently each earn $42,400 a year, plus benefits, which equates to the salary of a fifth-year teacher in Manchester.

And Dick said he doesn't like the piecework nature of VLACS pay: A teacher only gets paid when the student completes the course work.

Despite the misgivings, Gatsas remains optimistic.

Give children opportunities, and they will find a way to achieve, he said.

He said the new labs should address the problems dealing with bandwidth and low-completion rates of Manchester students.

"Things will work themselves out," he insists. And he dismissed suggestions the virtual classes would be used to eliminate real classrooms. It's all about giving students different opportunities and options, he said.

Nault said she still likes high school and would never abandon it entirely for her desktop. After all, there is lunch, study hall and unified arts programs, which don't work very well in the digital world, especially the lunch part.

Other advantages of VLACS: The virtual class frees her up for a school study hall, and she works on her lesson whenever she wants. (Sunday morning is a favorite.)

"Not all kids are motivated enough to sit in front of a computer," she said. "It just depends on the teaching style a kid wants."

<i>Mark Hayward's City Matters appears in Thursday editions of the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at <a href='mailto:mhayward@unionleader.com'> mhayward@unionleader.com</a>.</i>


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