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Virtual High School Catching on Locally

Van Raalte Tech to graduate first class of e-learners this week

By Stephen Kloosterman
The Holland Sentinel
June 02, 2010
Holland, MI

As Van Raalte Tech’s first graduation approaches, Principal Deb Feenstra has learned not to underestimate students’ drive to succeed.

The online learning-based school, started by Holland Public Schools last fall for high school dropouts and students behind in their studies, plans to graduate at least 18 students at the end of this week.

"The majority of the students we have want to be successful and they’re just looking for an opportunity to do it differently," Feenstra said.

Many students who were unable to complete courses due to family emergencies, medical problems or frustration in a traditional classroom find Van Raalte’s system more flexible.

"One, whose mother was in the hospital, worked online from Ann Arbor and we were able to support her," Feenstra said.

Of the 183 students who signed up at Van Raalte last fall, 164 are still in the program and a large group is expected to graduate next year.

"The majority of them were ninth-grade status," Feenstra said. "We only had a small percentage that could even feasibly finish in a year."

Van Raalte may be just the start to a growing trend in Michigan education to get high school dropouts to earn diplomas using a new breed of online education resources.

West Ottawa High School is working to set up a lab of about 60 computers in its south building where students will start summer school courses in a few weeks. Students in the lab this summer also will be able to work ahead, in addition to catching up using online courses.

West Ottawa High School Principal Kent Henson said that some students are actually more comfortable in front of a computer than answering questions in a classroom.

"When kids are in an online environment, some kids feel more freedom to express themselves in their answers in an online environment," Henson said. "A lot of the kids feel more comfortable responding in that manner than orally in a classroom setting."

The popularity of online courses is coming partially as a result of pressure on schools from lawmakers to increase graduation rates, said Rebekah Richards, chief academic officer for The American Academy, an online academy for credit recovery.

At the same time, educators are beginning to recognize ways to use online learning as a educational tool, Richards said. The American Academy was recently vetted by the state as a provider of online courses to public high schools.

"When online learning was available to K-12 learning 10 years ago, educators were very reluctant," Richards said. "The (new) norm for credit recovery is that there’s a teacher who is there monitoring and offering support."