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Brandon Virtual School a reality for 2013-14 school year

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May 22, 2013 - A Brandon High School senior recently expressed his disappointment to teacher Brian Moore that the school didn't offer AP Physics. He will now have to take it at the University of Michigan, where he will be enrolled in the fall.

While BHS offers several advanced placement courses, due to the size of the school and lower demand for some classes, not everyone can be served with the choices they may want, and thus are denied opportunities to earn college credit in high school.

However, during the May 20 school board meeting, Moore and BHS teacher Eric Lott announced plans to offer new options to students as they gave a presentation on "Brandon Virtual School."

School board members, as well as Superintendent Lorrie McMahon, support the plan to offer online classes, and beginning in the fall, Brandon High School students will be eligible to select online courses to take along with the traditional class offerings.

"We have a vision for big changes," said Moore at the beginning of the presentation. "We are looking at this (BHS) as a community college campus."

While online classes do not have all the answers and are not for everyone, Moore said offering them can draw students to the district and increase revenue. He and Lott began researching online classes and four factors led them to decide they should be offered at Brandon: changes in state requirements; development of courses; investment in Brandon technology; and a public appetite for online offerings.

Brandon Virtual School will use three different components as part of the online strategy. GenNET Online Learning is a partnership with the Genesee Intermediate School District and a full menu of online classes are typically used by homeschool families; students with medical issues; elite athletes; and alternative education students. Edgenuity is geared to credit recovery and allows students to "catch up" and graduate on time. But the third option, VHS Collaborative, is the one that seems to have drawn the most excitement and attention from Moore and Lott.

Enrollment by the district in this online program will give BHS students access to 21 AP courses as well as numerous other classes not offered by the district, including nuclear physics, astronomy, oceanography, biochemistry, screenwriting, horror writing, philosophy, Irish literature and specialized courses on the Holocaust, Middle East, Ancient Rome, and many more.

The classes are all led by certified teachers and are limited to class sizes of 25 students each. No more than four students from Brandon can be enrolled in each section, as one of the goals of the VHS Collaborative is to have students interfacing with students from around the country and from around the world.

"We didn't want to just jump in and be an online school," said Lott. "We want to take the best and make it a unique Brandon experience… We're preparing kids for college. The reality is, this is what college looks like these days. We need to prepare kids for that. It's a good service to offer the kids."

A long-term goal of Brandon Virtual School, said Lott, will be for Brandon teachers to develop their own courses to offer online.

During the school board meeting, Brandon music teacher Mike Medvinsky questioned whether the current teachers of online courses would match the quality of instruction students receive from teachers in the Brandon School District.

"How do we make sure we maintain the level of excellence as we farm out courses and be the middleman until we get our own courses?" he asked.

Lott said most of the online teachers have gone through NCAA accreditation and have also been vetted by the VHS Collaborative, having gone through a process to be accepted as instructors.

Moore acknowledged that online courses aren't perfect, but noted it gives students an opportunity to take courses they want that aren't available in the traditional classroom. Nor does he expect that online classes will overtake traditional education or endanger the jobs of Brandon teachers.

"A kid who is willing to try an online class has to be interested in the subject matter," he said. "This is not the new wave of education, I think it's a part of it. I think for most kids I know, one of these classes is enough, because the live interaction need kicks in. This is one component of education. These online classes aren't for everyone, but they are for someone, and as we go we will be making them better and eventually making our own classes."

The cost to the district for the VHS Collaborative is $100 per student enrolled. In the 2013-2014 school year, the district is aiming to have 25 kids enrolled in an online class for the fall semester, and 25 for the winter semester for a total cost of $5,000 for the year, but Superintendent Lorrie McMahon said the district will not cap enrollment for the online classes, keeping it open to all.

"We see this as a big opportunity to recruit and retain students," she said. "People who want more opportunity will get it in Brandon."

Students will be able to sign up for the classes now to have them in their fall schedules. Moore hopes to have a classroom of students during the day who are in the different online courses. Brandon teachers and counselors will offer support and follow-up with students enrolled in the online courses.

"To me, (Brandon Virtual School) is the most exciting development for our kids and families," said Moore. "When we offer the right things for kids, our school will fill up. Brandon High School is a great school to begin with, but it just got better. This works and it will work for our kids."

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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