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Virtual learning back in session
Online and blended studies open to home-schooled public, private, students
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As students across the state return to their brick-and-mortar schools, many are going back to a different kind of school.

The state’s Georgia Virtual Learning program is another option in the world of online and blended learning. It’s open to students in public and private schools, as well as home-schooled students.

The accredited school, with courses available at the middle and high school level, was originally established in the mid-2000s to provide options for rural students in public schools, explained Bob Swiggum, chief information officer with the Department of Education.

“The big focus at first was Advanced Placement courses,” Swiggum said. “Because most rural districts can’t afford to hold on to a teacher with an Advanced Placement skill set.”

Since then, the program has expanded to include private and home-schooled students, growing from 11,000 students overall to just under 20,000 last year.

“It’s about a 30 percent increase each year,” Swiggum said. “This year, we expect to go even higher because of the current legislation, which is encouraging ... districts to tell parents about online opportunities.”

The Hall County and Gainesville school systems have students who take advantage of the online offerings, but not many.

“We use Georgia Virtual School for a course that we may not offer,” explained Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer. “It’s used primarily by students that want to take more Advanced Placement classes, or languages beyond what we offer.”

Hall County Director of Technology Aaron Turpin said the program is used much the same way by the county system.

“We actually are able to import the content from Georgia Virtual School into Hall Connect,” Turpin said. “So we actually have that content available for our teachers. Now, it’s a download process and we download the courses when requested, so we don’t have all of them.”

There are around 140 courses offered by the virtual school, with the majority at the high school level. Swiggum said legislation is currently in the works to provide the program with additional funds to build the curriculum to encompass K-12 classes.

Cost per class averages around $250. School systems get from $650 to $850 per student, per class.

“The school now just pays us that $250, and they keep their money,” Swiggum said. “So it’s actually a financial windfall.”

The credits are administered through the student’s actual school, though. Students can’t graduate from the virtual school.

Swiggum provided information that, last year, Gainesville students took 27 classes, while students in the Hall district took 72 classes. Both school systems have internal blended learning options that are used more than the virtual school.

“The benefit of going with the Blended Learning Academy ... is that it’s a blend. You’ve got a teacher,” Turpin said. “It’s not solely virtual. Virtual learning is only effective for about 15 percent of the population, and that’s why most of our folks who do it take more of a blended approach.”

The numbers for the state’s program are impressive.

For example, the state average in the Coordinate Algebra End of Course Test this year was 37 percent of students meeting or exceeding the standard.

“The (virtual school) average was 79 percent,” Swiggum said. He added that virtual students were “regular” students, but they tend to be more motivated than their peers.

“They are the students who are typically willing to take on more,” he said. “They are the students who are looking to do extra.”

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