The notion of expanding a student’s learning horizons takes on both a literal and virtual meaning with the VHS Consortium program at Hackettstown High School.
The program, now in its fourth year, allows students to take elective courses via the Internet in classes comprised of students from around the world. At the same time Hackettstown teachers can qualify to become instructors in the system.
Representatives from 10 northern New Jersey schools were on hand Thursday to learn how the program was set up and to listen to local students and teachers extol its virtues.
The VHS Consortium, based in Maynard, Mass., was founded in 1996 by the Concord Consortium, a nonprofit educational research and development organization, and the Hudson (Mass.) Public Schools.
The group has signed up 51 New Jersey school districts, including Kinnelon, Madison, Pequannock, Somerville, Manville, Franklin, Somerset County and Sussex County Technical School.
Enrolled schools have a site coordinator who acts as a guidance counselor, parent, teacher, and technical support, said Sarah Domick, Hackettstown’s site coordinator and high school librarian.
Not every school which enrolls students in the program also has teachers, but Hackettstown has two, Heather Stem, who teaches creative writing, and Victoria Regis, who teachers mythology.
Hackettstown had 96 students enrolled in the virtual school this year, 47 in the fall and 49 in the spring semester. The school has 100 student slots.
Stem said the courses taken by the students are electives. Hackettstown does not offer any core classes through the online school, she said. The class work must meet the core curriculum standards of the respective states where it is offered, she said.
Guidance counselor Laurie Cardell said the virtual high school is not used at Hackettstown for remedial work or in place of a summer school program. It is designed to expand the ability to offer more electives, she said.
The cost to the district is about $150 a student, Domick said.
Cardell said the program requires a lot of the students. The courses in the virtual high school are in addition to a full load of coursework required by Hackettstown, she said.
“Students must manage the virtual classes and their own classes and assignments,” she said. Students quickly learn time management and the skills necessary to do the course work, she said.
Because of the demanding schedule, the virtual high school is not offered to first year high school students, Cardell said.
Student Sarah Sequda said she took a virtual course in American popular music from the 1920s to the present. She said she squeezed it in between her regular class work and duties as a member of the high school band, which played at football games and appeared in band tournaments.
The scheduling juggling was difficult, but Sequda said she eventually mastered it.
“This taught me to manage time. It took discipline,” she said.
Student Emily Slaman took a virtual mythology course and was excited to learn about local stories and myths from other parts of the United States and to tell the students about local myths, like the Jersey Devil.
This semester she is taking a course on international business and in her class are students from Japan, China and Korea.
“We learned about business processes in other countries and how they are interwoven with the United States,” she said.
Student Sydney Lett said she learned the hard way about time management. She said she left too many of her sociology assignments until the last minute, and found herself “at 11:59” on the last day the work was due pushing out the assignments.
Lett said she learned “That to go to college, I need those skills.”
Both Stem and Regis said they are driven to teach both their local classes and the virtual classes.
They have specific time frames to complete scoring and grades, and must respond to student questions within 24 hours, Stem said.
Given the different times zones the students are in, including international times, the job is a virtual “24/7” job, Regis said. “I do it because I love the job,” she said.