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On-line learning brings specialty classes to area Catholic high schools

Cathedral High School students participating in the Virtual High School program are pictured with school principal Robert McGurrin and technology coordinator Richard Smyth. Pilot photo/Christopher S. Pineo

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SOUTH END -- Students at 19 Catholic high schools in the Boston area began on-line courses offered through the Maynard based Virtual High School Collaborative (VHS) as students returned to school the first week of September.

VHS provides students with the ability to take courses that their local school would not otherwise be able to offer, because of limited interest, budget restrictions, or not having a teacher for a given course.

Among the schools utilizing the program is Cathedral High School in Boston's South End.

Seven students using the services at Cathedral High are enrolled in Spanish IV, French IV and Advanced Placement Literature classes -- all courses the school could not otherwise offer.

"These students, not only are they beginning a new school year, they are beginning a new experience with the Virtual High School," principal at Cathedral High Robert McGurrin said.

He said the addition of these courses fits directly in with the core mission of the school in educating students.

"Clearly we want to provide as many opportunities as we can for our students to learn. We had a group of students that wanted to take some more advanced courses that, if it were not for VHS, it would be very difficult for us to offer this year, because one is a class of four, another is a class of four, and the third is a class of one. So this was an excellent opportunity for us to provide the students with what they were looking for and still be able to do it within reasonable logistics and cost," McGurrin said.

Students will use on-line tools and resources to take a class with a teacher who will not necessarily be signed on to VHS systems at the same time. However, differentiating themselves from some on-line courses in which a student guides themselves, the VHS courses will feature what the company calls "co-synchronous e-learning." In this learning style the teacher will be available to interact with students and answer questions, while the student sets their own pace for learning.

McGurrin said since this is the first time trying this at the school, students enrolled in VHS classes are given a period in the school day allotted to coursework for the on-line courses.

The school designated Richard Smyth, technology coordinator at the school, to work with the students as the VHS program site coordinator.

He said his responsibilities include gathering course materials, supervising student progress, and ensuring communication with parents and teachers regarding student progress.

Smyth has been librarian and technology coordinator since he began at the school in 1997. He worked on a test program run by VHS at the school while the company was just starting up a decade ago.

"I have been through the process. I know what is involved with being a site coordinator, so I have some experience," he said.

Smyth said the program provides an extended opportunity for students to pursue subjects of interest to them while expanding their education.

"It is not just delivering content over the web, but it is actually working with methods that are appropriate for teenagers, and really for any learner," he said.

"It is web-based delivery of course content, so they could access the course anywhere there is an internet connection. It could be at home -- if they have internet connection, at the library, or here in the building," Smyth said.

Smyth explained the benefit of the courses to students at Cathedral High.

"If one student wants to take Chinese, we cannot hire a Chinese teacher for that student. But he could join with 24 other students across the world to take that Virtual High School Chinese class, for example," he said.

Smyth said picking up the time-management skills required for on-line coursework should help prepare students for college.

"A lot of universities are doing hybrid classes -- kind of a mix of face-to-face time and on-line time. They will have experience doing that. They will be able to discover their strengths and weaknesses in that kind of setting, and they will be able to take that with them as they go forward into their college career, and their work careers," Smyth said.

Smyth said the school saw a potential for the courses to succeed based on the methods the company uses in creating the courses to deliver consistent quality through their on-line model of teaching.

"What we like about VHS is that they have a progressive, pedagogical theory that structures the way that they build the classes, the way they train the teachers," Smyth said.

Cathedral High is participating in programs through VHS via a group of small Catholic schools called the Catholic Independent Schools, a collaborative of nine schools. While Cathedral High only places students into VHS courses, some schools provide their teachers to teach a VHS course.

Gene Ward teaches a VHS course "The Psychology of Crime" for St. Joseph Prep, a school in the same VHS collaborative as Cathedral High.

He said students who enjoy television, books or movies that delve into the psychology of criminal law will enjoy his class.

He said the VHS courses reach a teacher with all necessary materials, readings and internet resources already laid out, so teachers can roll right into the course.

Ward said he was impressed with the attention to detail his training at VHS took in preparing him to teach the course.

"Every part of what they do is well thought out, well organized, well run. They leave nothing to chance. I was just so impressed with their whole structure. Their training, which lasted 10 weeks, was amazing," he said.

Both Ward and Smyth said the courses will require nothing more than an average computer with internet access. Additional software will only be required for specialized classes such film editing.

Students participating in the courses at Cathedral High said they felt excited to participate in the classes offered through VHS.

"I'm so excited to take these on-line classes because it is going to be a new environment. I will get to learn certain skills that I didn't know I had before, so it will be awesome," said Danisha Charles, a senior at Cathedral High.

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