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Virtual success for rural schools

Four steps to setting up a winning distance-learning program in rural areas.

4 min read


Virtual success for rural schools


Setting up an online learning program can be especially challenging for those of us living in rural areas. When implementing online learning with The Virtual High School 11 years ago, we knew that we wanted to be able to offer students a broader portfolio of educational opportunities (outside of our planned curriculum) while giving them voice and choice in their own learning.

The program let our students take classes in a low-stakes environment and explore an entirely new world outside of Sutton, Massachusetts.

Here’s how we made it happen:

  1. Start small with a pilot program. Sutton Middle School is a unique, rural “sleeper” community. Homeowners here typically have acres and acres of land. Socioeconomically, we serve a wide range of students—from those who live in a small factory community to upper-middle-class families. With about 375 students, we have 125 in each grade level and 25 teachers. When we began our partnership with VHS more than 10 years ago, we enrolled a group of 12 students in the same math class in a library equipped with antiquated computers. The following year, our students were given access to the entire catalogue of online courses. As our technology evolved, we built out our online offering from there and today we have about 25 students using the program each semester.
  2. Come up with a schedule. We really want to make sure students get that period of online courses daily because we know that will help to set them up for success. Working with a 7-period school day, pupils use the final segment of the day to take VHS classes, band, or chorus. If a student is interested in online courses and musically-inclined, teachers help make room for both. We reserve 50 VHS seats each year and typically fill about half of them each semester. In some cases, the courses are opened up to younger middle school students and high school pupils. If we have an interested 6th grader, for example, I call his or her parents personally to talk about the opportunity. I’ve never had a parent say no.
  3. Hand-pick students for the program. Students who want to sign up for the online courses must first obtain two teacher recommendations and their guidance counselor’s approval. They also have to maintain at least a grade average of 80. Once the parents approve and the child completes a successful interview, he or she can sign up for the online courses. Key selection points include student motivation, success rates, and whether they are independent learners. We tell interested students to ask themselves questions like:  Do you have good time management skills? Are you self-motivated and start assignments without prompting? Are you curious about new topics and love to learn? And, are you mature and well behaved?
  4. Use online learning to fill in the gaps. Last year, the average pass rate for Sutton Middle School’s online learners was 84%. Creative writing is the most popular class with 20% of total enrollments, and 33% of the online courses taken were at the high school level. Part of that success is because students can select courses that they’re actually interested in—an important “win” in a location that doesn’t have gifted or advanced classes at the middle school level. VHS fits that gifted and talented niche; plus, it’s nice to be able to offer pupils something else besides their 7-period day.

Gerry Goyette is principal at Sutton Middle School in Massachusetts.

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