High school students who find it difficult to take required or desired classes because of scheduling conflicts are able to solve their dilemma through South-Western City Schools' participation in the Virtual Learning Academy.

The Virtual Learning Academy is a program offered by the Jefferson County Educational Service Center in Steubenville.

The program offers online content for classes aligned with Ohio's curriculum standards, said Erik Shuey, South-Western's director of secondary education.

"They offer basically the same classes we offer, both half-credit and full-credit courses," Shuey said.

While the VLA can be used for students who need to make up credit deficiencies, South-Western only offers the service to students looking for credit advancement or a way to take a course they otherwise would not be able to take because of a scheduling conflict, he said.

"Some advanced courses we may only offer in only one or two periods of the school day and it just may not fit in with a student's other scheduling needs," Shuey said.

The opportunity to access class content outside of their home school is especially helpful for students looking to earn a diploma with honors and who may find it difficult to schedule all of the course work they need, he said.

The program also provides flexibility for students whose daily schedule includes band or orchestra class, Shuey said.

"What's great about the Virtual Learning Academy is that the (content) is available anytime the student wants to log in," Shuey said. "They have the convenience of taking the course at home."

During the 2016-17 school year, 41 students are taking 61 courses through the VLA, he said. Last school year, 35 students took 48 courses.

Students from each of the district's four high schools participate in the program, Shuey said.

The program also is helpful for students enrolled at the South-Western Career Academy, he said.

Students apply during their sophomore year to enroll at the academy during their junior and seniors years.

"They will take career tech labs in their chosen field of study, along with the core high school classes they need, Shuey said.

Some students might lack a credit in a core class they aren't able to take at the career academy.

"We don't want a student who may be lacking only one credit to not be able to take advantage of the career technical education they want at the career academy," Shuey said.

Tamia Williams, a Grove City High School senior taking the health technology program at the career academy, is using the VLA this year to access material for a fine arts class.

"I was lacking an art credit I needed," she said. "So when I found out I could access a class online, I jumped at the chance."

The VLA's convenience is particularly helpful, Williams said.

"It's great that I can access the material anytime I want at home," she said. "You do have to be self-motivated and responsible enough to keep up with your work, but that's no problem for me.

"I wish I could take more classes like this, to be honest," Williams said. "It's just so nice to be able to do it when it fits your schedule."

While the VLA provides online content for the courses, the South-Western staff serves as "teachers of record," Shuey said.

The local teachers are available to answer students' questions about their courses and administer final exams, he said.

"They also are there to make sure the students are staying on track and doing the work needed for their courses," Shuey said.

About 10 South-Western staff members are serving this year as teachers of record, he said.

They receive a stipend for their additional duties, he said.

This year, the district is providing $1,950 in supplemental pay for local VLA teachers, Treasurer Hugh Garside said. Last year, the teacher payments totaled $4,250.

The district pays a seat license for each student participating in the program, Shuey said.

"One of the most important things about the VLA is that there be no cost to students taking a class through the program," he said.

This year, the district is paying $10,460 to the Jefferson County ESC, Garside said. Last year, South-Western's cost to the ESC was $8,700.

The ESC provides training for local teachers who will serve as teachers of record, said Teresa Silvestri, director of education and outreach.

The Virtual Learning Academy began 16 years ago as a program to cater to students and schools in the three-county area served by the Jefferson County ESC, she said.

"We were really one of the pioneers in this type of program," Silvestri said.

Being first in recognizing the potential of using internet technology to provide course content for students has allowed the VLA program to extend its reach into all of Ohio and beyond, she said.

Since 2004, VLA has enrolled more than 50,000 students in 173 Ohio school districts, with students enrolled in all 50 states and 31 countries.

"We are consistently reviewing and updating our courses and curriculum to make sure we stay up to date with changing educational standards," Silvestri said.

In its early years, the VLA primarily was used by districts to help students with credit deficiencies, she said.

"As the number of advanced placement or college credit courses available to students has increased and more and more students are looking to earn honors diplomas, that has certainly changed, Silvestri said.

Now, a majority of students in Ohio participating in the VLA are taking classes for credit enhancement, she said.

The South-Western Board of Education at its April 10 meeting approved a two-year extension of its contract with the Jefferson County ESC for the VLA program.

The district has participated in the program for 15 years, Shuey said.

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