It’s reality - high school classes are going virtual

Online consortium offers hard-to-find courses to students worldwide

Concord-Carlisle High guidance counselor Brad McGrath checks Jack Michaud's grades for his Virtual High School course in government. Concord-Carlisle High guidance counselor Brad McGrath checks Jack Michaud's grades for his Virtual High School course in government. (Ellen Harasimowicz for The Boston Globe)
By Jennifer Fenn Lefferts
Globe Correspondent / September 24, 2009

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Sean O’Brien attends Concord-Carlisle High School, but at least once a day he checks in with a teacher he’ll never meet face to face.

O’Brien is one of 20 Concord-Carlisle students in the Virtual High School program, which offers online courses taught by teachers all over the world. O’Brien, a sophomore, is taking an Advanced Placement economics course taught by an instructor in Texas.

“I thought it’d be a different way to take it and I could do it on my own time,’’ O’Brien said. “I like the freedom of it.’’

This is the first year Concord-Carlisle is participating in the Virtual High School, a Maynard-based nonprofit consortium involving more than 400 middle and high schools worldwide. Concord-Carlisle and Wellesley High are among 47 schools that joined this year.

“We’ve added a lot - it’s a huge number for us,’’ said Carol Arnold, a spokeswoman for Virtual High School.

Also, several schools that already participate in the program, such as Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School in Marlborough, are expanding their offerings to accommodate its growing popularity among students.

Arnold said schools are looking for ways to give students more choices at a time when teachers and classes are being cut.

“Schools all over the country are being affected by the economy and budget cuts,’’ Arnold said. “Advanced Placement and enrichment courses are often the first to get cut because they are not required. That’s one of the reasons they are turning to VHS. They are trying to bridge that gap.’’

The Virtual High School collaborative in volves more than 9,500 students, 419 schools, and 260 teachers in 28 states and 23 countries.

Local communities that participate in the program include Ashland, Bellingham, Harvard, Hopkinton, Hudson, Lincoln, Littleton, Framingham, Marlborough, Maynard, Medfield, Medway, Millis, Natick, Shrewsbury, Wayland, Wellesley, and Westborough. Algonquin Regional High School, Assabet Valley Regional Tech, Concord-Carlisle High School, Hanscom Middle School, Nashoba Regional High School, and Tri-County Regional Technical High School also take part.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association does not oppose online learning as long as it does not take the place of traditional teaching, according to its president, Anne Wass.

“Virtual or distance learning is a valuable tool, but should be used to supplement face-to-face classroom teaching and not supplant it,’’ Wass said. “It can be useful to students living in rural areas where more specialized courses may only be available online. Of course, we believe that all courses, whether they take place in cyberspace or in a bricks-and-mortar building, should be taught by licensed educators who are available to their students on a regular basis.’’

Schools participating in Virtual High School must provide a teacher who will lead an online course available to any students in the program. For example, Concord-Carlisle High math teacher Peter Atlas is instructing an Advanced Placement calculus class.

In return, Concord-Carlisle receives 25 spots in Virtual High School classes. The cost for a school to participate is $6,500 a year.

Patrick O’Rourke, a guidance counselor at Assabet Valley and the Virtual High site coordinator there, said the program makes financial sense for schools looking to offer more choices to students without a huge expense. He said it has also been a way for the technical school to keep up with online learning.

“Being a technical school, our goal is to offer our students cutting-edge technology,’’ O’Rourke said. “We figured it would be a great opportunity for our students to try it.’’

Weston High School principal Anthony Parker said the district does not participate in an online learning program but officials are exploring the possibility. He said teachers have expressed interest and put forward proposals for tapping into those kinds of educational resources.

“It’s something we believe we need to jump on,’’ Parker said. “It’s the wave of the future.’’

Assabet Valley started the program last year with 15 spots available for students and increased that number to 25 this year.

“Word travels and once a student finds out it’s a viable option, interest grows,’’ O’Rourke said.

Doug Brown, the site coordinator at Wellesley High School, said the program got off to a slow start this year, and has just six students enrolled. He said by the time it got set up, many of the most popular online classes were already filled.

But he’s confident that after word spreads, more students will sign up for the second semester offerings.

“This gives them an ability to explore different careers,’’ he said. “It’s tough unless you’re a really big high school to offer specialized classes.’’

Brad McGrath, a guidance counselor at Concord-Carlisle who serves as the Virtual High site coordinator, said the program is not only a way to offer more course choices to students but it offers an alternative learning style for students who may not do well in a traditional classroom setting.

While it offers many college-level Advanced Placement classes, which are typically booked up, the Virtual High program has classes for students of all levels and abilities, McGrath said.

“Public education should be serving all kids and providing all kinds of opportunities,’’ McGrath said. “We have kids who struggle to get to school, who have anxiety, yet they could be very successful with this model.’’

Students are required to log in regularly and do all assigned work. McGrath meets with students weekly to make sure they are completing their assignments. There is no specific time set aside in the school day for students to work on their online courses; it’s up to them to fit the time into their schedule during school or at home, McGrath said.

“They have access to computers here to log in and it’s our expectation they’d log in every day just like going to class,’’ he said. “We’re assuming kids are motivated and interested in taking their courses.’’

Concord-Carlisle students are taking classes not typically offered at the high school, such as Advanced Placement courses in English, economics, and US government, as well as Shakespeare and films, environmental science, philosophy, animal behavior and zoology, preveterinary medicine, oceanography, and personal finance.

Students at Concord-Carlisle said they like the program. Some are taking classes to get ahead for college, while others have found classes on specific interests.

Maria Whelan, a senior, is taking AP English so she’ll be ready to take the test for college credit in the spring.

“I thought it’d be a great opportunity to be able to take it,’’ she said.

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at