New England Communities Divided on Value of Internet Classes

online classesVia U.S. Highway 3, Framingham, Mass., is barely 65 miles south of Manchester, N.H. On questions of online schooling, though, the two New England towns might as well exist on separate planets. The New York Times reported recently that Manchester, N.H., school officials want to manage the loss of 95 full-time teachers by having some students take courses online during the school day. Parents and teachers are not at all pleased. In stark contrast to their northern neighbors, when Framingham school district officials earlier this week announced their plan to extend online instruction into the town’s middle schools, parents and teachers wholeheartedly endorsed the initiative.

In Manchester, parents and teachers are expressing fierce hostility toward the school district’s plan to expand its use of New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy, creating a virtual learning lab and a remote classroom at each of the district’s three high schools. Labs will link to the statewide library of instructional materials; remote classrooms will allow students at one school to enroll in under-subscribed classes at a sister school, participating via interactive monitors. The plan also includes substantially increased collaboration with the Manchester campus of the University of New Hampshire.

Anger and Advocacy in Manchester

Calling virtual classrooms “electronic babysitters,” outraged teachers and parents claim the plan fails to address fundamental problems in revenue generation, budgeting and governance. A few frightened teachers openly express concern that substituting machines for credentialed personnel sets a very dangerous precedent. However, Manchester Superintendent Thomas Brennan Jr. advocates the plan on its merits, arguing, ““It deals with the reality of budgets and the limited resources we have, and the need for students and school districts to catch up with technology.” Speaking to traditionalists’ concerns, Dr. Brennan said, “I believe class sizes will diminish, and it will allow more opportunities for teachers to work with students that are struggling.”

Eagerness and Enthusiasm In Framingham

Meanwhile, in nearby Framingham, Mass., the prevailing sentiment about online schooling runs directly counter to public opinion in Manchester. Students and parents long ago embraced the idea of enriching the curriculum with Internet instruction, and they want more online classes for younger students. The “MetroWest Daily News” reports school district officials have outlined plans for expanding their Virtual High School program to the local middle school. The school district has collaborated in the international Virtual High School for over 14 years, linking Framingham high school students with classmates and teachers in 30 states and 15 countries. The program allows high-achieving students to take sophisticated, specialized courses the district otherwise could not afford to offer. Calling Virtual High School “a staple” in the curriculum and stressing its popularity, Superintendant Kevin Lyons told parents, “Virtual High School is really a part of our local vocabulary,” and he and his colleagues look forward to expanding the program so that more students can capitalize on the program’s exceptional learning opportunities.

An Online Alumna’s View

In Santee, Ca., a middle class suburb east of San Diego, Jessica Molina declares online classes saved her academic life. When her dedication to cheerleading, dance and gymnastics put her more than a semester behind her classmates, Jessie elected to catch up and then finish high school via the Grossmont High School District’s online curriculum. Several years ago, the district chose to address its drop-out problem by putting its entire curriculum online. Developers went so far as to guarantee online courses satisfy the University of California’s “a-to-g” pattern for college preparation. “The courses cover all the same materials and maintain the same high standards my teachers did,” Jessie says, “but online classrooms had resources to help me understand the most difficult materials. I could repeat difficult concepts until I got them, and I could revise my essays until they scored B’s and A’s.”

Saying, “I earned this with blood, sweat and lots of tears,” Jessie donned her cap and gown and collected her diploma with her classmates. “If it weren’t for the Internet, I would be just another drop-out, a pretty hopeless failure,” Molina admits. “I cannot tell you how totally grateful I feel for online classes.”