Amite — The Tangipahoa Parish school system is exploring ways to expand virtual learning opportunities in grades 6-12, but some board members are concerned about the program's ability to meet the needs of at-risk students.
Implementing a virtual learning program would allow the district to provide more opportunities for learning while addressing the system’s needs, including saving money, said Chief Academic Officer Melissa Stilley.
The options explored by the district include:
- Full-virtual learning, which would provide online coursework with periodic in-person check-ins for students who are in the parish’s alternative program or are homebound, home-schooled or seeking a General Educational Development certificate.
- Blended learning, which would combine online and on-campus classes for students who have failed certain courses, or are off-track but want to graduate on time, or want to take electives not available on campus.
- Virtual tutoring, which would enhance campus courses for state tests, college preparation and support in the Common Core State Standards.
“This isn’t cutting edge, but it’s close,” Superintendent Mark Kolwe said. “There are not a lot of districts doing it, and some of those who are doing it are finding they have to make adjustments.”
Virtual learning could also save the district money by reducing textbook costs, brick-and-mortar overhead, Louisiana Virtual School fees and, if test scores improve, remediation expenses, Stilley said.
And if the program attracts previously home-schooled students, or those who would have enrolled in other virtual learning programs, the district would see an increase in state Minimum Foundation Program funds for each new child enrolled, she said.
“It’s more than just the students we presently have that we think we can reach out and touch,” Kolwe said.
Some School Board members expressed concerns, however, about equipping the parish’s at-risk students with the technology they would need as well as motivating them from a distance.
Whether a student is deemed “at-risk,” defined as those eligible for free or reduced-price meals, is based on federal guidelines for household income and the number of family members in the home.
Seventy-five percent of Tangipahoa Parish public school students meet the definition, according to the state Department of Education.
For the parish’s alternative program, which serves students who have had disciplinary problems in the classroom, the number of at-risk students jumps to 88.6 percent, Department of Education figures show.
“Many times the alternative program students would be the ones most likely not to have a computer at home and not be one to be on-task,” board member Ann Smith said. “That’s probably why many of them are there in the first place.”
District officials are considering providing laptops with Internet service cards to those students not able to afford them, Stilley said.
With reimbursements through the federal E-rate program, a $600 laptop could cost the district as little as $150-200, she said.
At-risk students also are more likely to need structure, Smith said, whereas a virtual learning system requires self-discipline.
“I know if they’d have given me a computer and sent me home, I’d have been shooting basketball all day, not sitting at the computer,” board member Al Link said.
Whether the learning environment is virtual or face-to-face, Stilley said, getting students to engage actively in their education is always a problem.
“We just have to be creative and work with the parent and student to get a work plan that can help them be successful,” Stilley said.
In cases where online progress monitoring, check-ins with teachers and discussions with parents are unsuccessful, the court system probably would have to get involved, she said.
Board member Gail Pittman-McDaniel said a lack of reliable Internet service on the north end of the parish also could limit the benefits for students in more rural areas.
“There are a lot of things we need to address so that all the children who want to benefit from this can do so,” she said.
Board member Brett Duncan agreed, saying, “I’d love to help get wireless to the north end. It’s long past due.”
“But I think this is an important step in the right direction for our system,” Duncan added. “As we are trying to compete with all these other folks under the (state’s) new reform laws, I don’t even know if we have the option not to do this.... We’ve got to do it, and do it better than anyone else.”
Expressing disappointment in the district’s state test scores, Kolwe said school officials may not have the final model for virtual learning figured out, but the traditional classroom model isn’t producing the results they want to see.
“We’ve got to do things differently,” Kolwe said. “This model here, I think, will eventually help move our students to where they need to be. We can’t stay status quo.”