Strapped District Plans to Add Online Classes

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MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Budget cuts have eliminated about 95 full-time teachers from the school district here over the past year, swelling class sizes and prompting parents to cry foul.

"We had students sitting on the floor with a clipboard," said Jim O'Connell, the president of the Parent-Teacher Organization at Hillside Middle School. "It's one degree separated from a 1700s classroom with chalk and a slate."

Officials, seeking an overhaul, began to wonder if a 21st-century technology might help allay their struggles: having some students take courses online during the school day, without a teacher physically present.

But a plan to institute "blended learning labs," which allow students to do just that, is stoking concern among parents and teachers. Some doubt the efficacy of online learning. Others say the proposed solution barely scratches the surface of systemic problems here.

"It's smoke and mirrors; it's a high-tech baby sitter," said David Fischer, a community college instructor who has two children set to attend Central High School next year.

The plan, which Superintendent Thomas J. Brennan Jr. presented to the district's school board last month, would expand the district's current use of New Hampshire's online charter school, the Virtual Learning Academy, by putting a virtual learning lab in each of the district's three high schools, allowing students to take courses there during the school day under the supervision of a "facilitator" who would be present in the lab. It would also add a remote classroom to each high school, where students in undersubscribed courses could participate in classes taught at one of the other schools via an interactive monitor, and expand the school's collaboration with the University of New Hampshire at Manchester.

In an interview, Dr. Brennan said class-size issues were not the main motivation for the project, which he hopes will expand student opportunity and increase technology literacy among pupils and staff alike. But it could, he said, provide a new alternative for students in oversubscribed classes without the schools' having to hire part-time teachers to pick up extra course sections.

"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," Dr. Brennan said of the plan. "I believe the class sizes will diminish, and it will allow more opportunities for teachers to work with students that are struggling."

With more than 15,000 students, Manchester is the largest school district in the state, serving about 1 in 12 of its public school students, district officials say. Once, the city drew money from the large business tax base of its mill economy, now defunct. Since then, the district's growth has not kept up with its tax revenues, and Manchester now has some of the state's lowest per-pupil spending, at $10,283.77 per student (the state average is $13,159.15). Some frustrated school officials and parents also blame underfinancing on a tax cap, finalized last year, that limits what the city can spend.

The question of underfinancing and overcrowding drove the school board in tiny Candia, N.H., to request a face-to-face meeting with Manchester's school board late last month. Candia has its own public schools through eighth grade, but it contracts with Manchester to send its students to their Central High School.

Assistant Superintendent Michael Tursi presented the new plan, including the learning labs, to Candia's board, but it was unimpressed. "This is not a solution," said Candia's superintendent, Charles P. Littlefield, to applause. Later, he added, "I'd like to think I'm a 21st-century superintendent, but I'm not sure anything substitutes for high-quality interaction between teachers and students."

Parents bristled at the idea that online learning could begin to close the gap they see in the schools. "What you're seeing in Manchester is a postage stamp, a fig leaf, to cover the fact that politicians in our city will not increase taxes to fund our schools," said Mr. O'Connell, who is president of an advocacy group called Citizens for Manchester Schools.

Yet the use of online learning in high schools is growing nationwide; a 2008 survey by the Sloan Consortium, an organization that advocates for online learning, estimated that 1.3 million high school students took an online course during that academic year, and the number is likely to have grown since. Some states, like Florida, require students to take an online course to graduate.

Steve Kossakoski, the chief executive of the Virtual Learning Academy, New Hampshire's online charter school, said that the program was often used for accelerated or remedial courses or increased flexibility, but that he did not know of schools using his program to ease overcrowding.

But Crystal Howard, of Florida Virtual School, said school districts like Miami-Dade, one of the nation's biggest, did look to online learning when a 2002 voter referendum that went fully into effect in 2010 limited class sizes statewide. "When they said that there would be a mandatory class size and they could only have a certain number of students in the classroom, we did become a solution," Ms. Howard said.

Officials in Manchester expect to spend about $80,000 on the blended and remote classrooms, which they aim to begin putting in place next semester.

"I don't want people to think we're trying to divert resources so that we don't have to hire teachers," Dr. Brennan said. "The intent is to maximize the learning and to minimize the financial impact on Manchester School District."

education

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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