Seniors take courses

From left, East Carteret High School seniors Sara Simpson and Garrett Cawman take courses through the N.C. Virtual Public School as they sit in the ECHS media center Wednesday. (Cheryl Burke photo)

BEAUFORT — East Carteret High School senior Garrett Cawman studied French on a Google Chromebook in the media center Wednesday.

Several students sitting at other tables were also using Chromebooks to study various subjects.

Garrett and the other students are among many in the county taking courses through the N.C. Virtual Public School. Others attend virtual charter schools.

NCVPS and other virtual schools have gained in popularity with students and families for various reasons. For Garrett, he needs a foreign language course in order to pursue his future college goals. However, because of his heavy course load this year, the Spanish class at his school would not fit.

“Spanish is the only foreign language they offer here. By taking French online, I could fit it in one of my academic periods and it would work with my calculus class,” Garrett said. “I like the idea that I can do it during my third period time slot or I can do it during a fifth period after school. I can either do my work here at school or I can do it from my house.”

According to Mia Murphy, chief operations officer with NCVPS in Raleigh, there were 315 Carteret County students who took NCVPS courses during the 2018-19 academic year. As of Aug. 23, there were 241 students enrolled for the 2019-20 academic year, with enrollment still open.

Carteret County Schools Finance Officer Kathy Carswell said last year 26 students here attended two virtual charter schools, as well. She doesn’t have an enrollment count for this year yet.

Virtual schools allow students to take courses online, taught by a teacher who shares information offsite. NCVPS offers courses to students in grades six through 12, while virtual charter schools offer courses to all grades.

Many students, like Garrett, opt to take one or two NCVPS courses and remain enrolled in their traditional public school.

Others, however, opt to attend a virtual school fulltime. Students can opt to attend the NCVPS fulltime and remain a traditional public school student or attend a virtual charter school.

“Public school students must enroll through their local schools. We function as a supplemental program for districts. Students may end up taking all their classes with us, but they are still a member of that local school,” Ms. Murphy said. “They will graduate with that school. We do not issue diplomas.”

Other students attend a virtual public charter school. The two recognized charter schools are N.C. Cyber Academy (formerly NC Connections) and NC Virtual Academy. Home-school and private school students can attend virtual schools, as well.

Ms. Murphy said she did not have a breakdown of how many Carteret County students enrolled in NCVPS were home-school, private or traditional public school students.

As for charter school students, Ms. Carswell said last year, 26 students attended two charter schools.

“We had 14 in NC Connections and 12 in NC Virtual Academy. If those students were enrolled in Carteret County Public Schools, we would have received approximately $6,000 per student or a total of $156,000,” Ms. Carswell said.

As for how NCVPS affects the county school budget, Ms. Murphy explained that each school district is provided an allotment for NCVPS enrollments from the state. The cost of enrolling is built into each district’s state budget.

“They are not sent a bill for enrollments. Any money from the allotment that a district does not spend is returned to the district in March of each year. That’s after enrollments are closed for the academic year,” Ms. Murphy said. “If a district runs out of allotment funds and wishes to continue to enroll with us, they can then use the NCVPS reserve funds.”

Ms. Murphy said Carteret County’s allotment for this academic year is $132,384.

As for the academic success rate of county students, Ms. Murphy said local students enrolled in the NCVPS had a 98% pass rate last year.

“That’s a great success rate,” she said.

However, the State Board of Education expressed concern in July over the performance of students statewide in the virtual charter academies. Both are graded as low performing under the state’s school performance system.

While issues are being ironed out at the state level, the NCVPS has continued to grow in popularity. Ms. Murphy said NCVPS enrolled 17,000 students when it started in 2007. It now enrolls more than 50,000 annually from all 115 state school districts.

Ms. Murphy said the two most popular types of courses taken through NCVPS are foreign languages and Advanced Placement courses.

ECHS guidance counselor Beverly Jones, too, said by far foreign languages were the most popular virtual courses taken by students at her school.

“They take Chinese, Japanese, German. Students take a wide variety of foreign languages. Most of the students who take courses here are the top achievers who are trying to gain their foreign language requirements. Others just like the challenge and gaining extra credits,” she said.

Ms. Jones said the NCVPS is a plus for smaller, rural schools that have limited course offerings.

“It allows small rural schools to expand their academic programming,” Ms. Jones said. “We include virtual school options as part of career planning. It just depends on the student and what their goals are.”

She cautioned, however, that virtual school won’t work for all students.

“The students who are successful taking these courses are self-motivated and self-disciplined,” she said.

As for how the virtual school program got its start, Ms. Murphy said in 2005, the state legislature established the E-learning Commission, which was charged with creating NCVPS.  

“At that time, several North Carolina school districts were developing their own online courses.  Some districts offered courses for free to students in the district,” she said. “Others charged a small registration fee, and still others charged a fee that paid an online teacher.”

Ms. Murphy said development was expensive for quality courses. Local leaders were concerned about the quality of courses and how teachers were presenting online instruction.

“State leaders were concerned that tax dollars were being spent to develop the same online courses from district to district. It was duplicate spending that was unnecessary if the state had one online school that all districts could enroll in. It would also be easier to monitor the quality of courses and the quality of instruction in one online school.”

Contact Cheryl Burke at 252-726-7081, ext. 255; email Cheryl@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @cherylccnt.

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