By Madelynn Coldiron
When Taylor County Superintendent Roger Cook wants to encourage a wavering student to stay in school, he might offer the student and his parents the option of the district’s Virtual Charter School.
Which is surprising, since Kentucky as yet does not authorize charter schools.
“The truth of the matter is, it’s just a different name,” Cook explains. “Having a virtual charter school is a means to an end to prevent dropouts – to give parents another option.”
And it’s a name with a more positive connotation than “alternative school,” which Cook believes unfairly labels students.
The virtual school, which occupies four classrooms at the district’s high school, also allows other students to take courses that aren’t offered there, which means struggling students are side-by-side with their more advanced peers who can help them.
“You put them in there with the gifted kids and they don’t feel stigmatized,” Cook said.
Teacher Shane Cox said teachers encourage students to ask each other questions. “Peer tutoring is an intervention,” he said.
Of the 220 or so students doing coursework through the virtual school, about 30 percent are there for credit recovery, with the remainder there to take more advanced classes.
While students can work at computer stations at the school, they also can access the courses from their home computer through the district’s server. Besides being useful for homebound students, this also provides an alternative for parents who want to home school their children, as long as they agree to the state’s assessment, Cook said. The district is able to monitor the work students do at home, Principal Dr. William Mattingly said.
The program, Mattingly said, “is the most exciting thing I’ve seen in education.”
Even some middle school students are earning high school credits through the virtual setup. It’s also open to adults in the community. Cook said that came about when he encountered a middle-aged man who was just two hours short of a diploma.
The virtual charter school uses “lots of products,” Cook said, from the more well-known commercial programs like Apex Learning and Novel Star to Jefferson County Schools’ online courses and the Kentucky Virtual High School.
“You match the program to the student,” Mattingly said.
“These kids embrace the technology,” Cox said. “They get to work at their own pace so they are more comfortable and working better. They do stay on task and they work hard and get results.”
The virtual school has seven employees, including the principal and two special education teachers. Most students don’t spend all day in the program and many leave in the afternoon for co-op jobs, Mattingly said.
The Taylor County district operates with performance-based learning, which means students basically work at their own pace and, in the case of high school students, may finish required coursework well before graduation. The virtual school, Cook said, “is a must for performance-based education. We have to have a place to put them when they finish early. There are so many more electives they can take by getting requirements out of the way early."