New Virtual Academy pilot opens at Stethem Ed. Center
Program blends online and classroom instruction
Charles County Public Schools is piloting a new type of educational program for students who, for various reasons, may have difficulty learning in a traditional high school classroom.
The new Virtual Academy at the Robert D. Stethem Educational Center in Pomfret opened this school year with 35 available spots.
Stethem Principal Evelyn Arnold said the new program combines self-directed online learning with in-class instruction.
“The Virtual Academy is a blended learning experience,” Arnold said. “Kids come in, and they take about 80 percent of the coursework online, and about 20 percent in direct instruction. We’re not just plopping kids in front of a computer and saying, ‘Go for it.’ There are instructors helping them, taking
their tests, there are a lot of things that are done in both a traditional and nontraditional way.”
The academy is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday; hours students attend are flexible, as long as they attend for at least five consecutive hours each day, Arnold said.
Students must arrange for their own transportation to and from Stethem, she said.
“VanGo stops at our front door, so some of our students ride VanGo, some are drivers, some are brought by their parents, because of the flexibility in the schedule, and some of our students carpool,” Arnold said.
Subject teachers assist students with questions and difficulties, and provide individual and small group instruction as well, Arnold said.
Tests are administered by teachers either online or in traditional format, she said.
The Virtual Academy offers the standard core classes, as well as electives such as sociology, psychology and creative writing.
Students must complete the same amount of coursework as in a traditional classroom, and the academic rigor is comparable, Arnold said.
“I want to be clear; this is not an easy route,” she said. “The content specialists came in and looked at the standards; we use Apex software, which is nationally recognized, we went all over the country studying other school systems.”
Arnold said the types of students who benefit from this type of program are varied, from students who have difficulty learning in a large group setting, to those with personal commitments or health issues who have difficulties attending school during regular set hours.
“It’s really a broad spectrum of students who, for whatever reason, the traditional setting isn’t the best fit,” she said. “The types of students we are getting are kids who have difficulty with traditional high school, they don’t like the huge setting, they prefer to come in and do what they need to do to get their diploma. We also have students who have some health concerns, and so the flexibility in being able to schedule doctor’s appointments, or start later due to health needs.”
Other students, Arnold said, may have other scheduling difficulties, or only need to complete one or two classes to graduate.
Angelina Lehmann, 16, was referred to the academy by her teacher in the home and hospitals instructional program. Lehmann is being treated for a medical condition which has made it difficult for her to attend school during traditional hours.
“I like it because it’s more personal, and there isn’t a big class,” Lehmann said. “In a big class, there are a lot of people creating distractions and keeping the teacher from teaching. With this, I can move through the units pretty quickly, at my own pace.”
Josh Wright, 17, said he needs to complete two more courses before he can graduate. Formerly a participant in the NOVEL program, Wright said he was referred to the program by mathematics instructor Jennifer Hoiler.
“I like that I can work on my own time, at my own pace, plus, it’s on the computer,” Wright said. “It’s more structured and organized.”
Wright said he would recommend the program for students who are not “morning persons.”
“You have to be disciplined, self-motivated,” Wright said.
Tiffany VanDyke, Virtual Academy counselor, said there are a few qualities beyond self-motivation that students who elect to take part in the academy have in common.
“They want to graduate; they want to do well. I can tell because they ask questions, ‘Am I on track?’ They care about their grades and most of them want to go on to college or a career. Whatever it is, they have a destination in mind,” VanDyke said. “I find that they’re not the kids who want to be a part of every club in the world and have nine million friends. They want to have a friend, and they want to do their schoolwork and go home. You have a lot of introverts, but you also have a good mix of extroverts.”
Arnold said some spaces remain available in the program. To participate, students must be in the 10th, 11th or 12th grade and receive a referral from their home school principal. Students must commit to being in the program for at least one year.
“We meet with the student and the parents, we go over all the requirements that we have here at the Academy, so that everybody’s very clear, and they have to commit for the year,” Arnold said.
Arnold said potential students need to be self-directed, and have the reading and comprehension abilities to complete online coursework.
The deadline for applications is Oct. 1.
“This is just providing them with another opportunity so that every student can get a great education,” Arnold said.
Angelina Lehmann does schoolwork as part of the Virtual Academy at the Robert D. Stethem Educational Center.
Mathematics instructor Jennifer Hoiler, right, assists student Josh Wright with a geometry question at the Virtual Academy at the Robert D. Stethem Educational Center.
The science classroom for the Virtual Academy, a pilot program, is at the Robert D. Stethem Educational Center.
Evelyn Arnold, principal at the Robert D. Stethem Educational Center, shows the cafe area at the new Virtual Academy.