BURLINGTON, Vt. — The Diocese of Burlington, this fall, hopes to become one of the first in the country to open a digital high school, where lectures, class discussions and homework largely take place in an online environment instead of a traditional bricks-and-mortar classroom.
Although online courses have long been available to Catholic home-school students, including some that go back to the 1990s, the idea of an accredited and diocesan-supported online Catholic school is quite new. The National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) said it is aware of the existence of just one other: the Archdiocese of Miami Virtual Catholic School.
The Archdiocese of Miami Virtual Catholic School opened in 2013. It claims to be the only diocesan-supported school of its kind. At least one other archdiocese, Chicago, also launched a digital academy in the same year. But it is intended to offer supplementary courses taken by students already enrolled in a physical school.
A third institution, Jesuit Virtual Learning Academy, also offers supplementary courses to any Jesuit or other Catholic school. It opened in 2008.
“While we do not have hard data on how many digital schools there are throughout the country, we know that, for our Catholic schools, this is one more 21st-century learning option that allows us to reach out to young people by offering them the Catholic-school spiritual and educational experience that they could not access any other way,” said Heather Gossart, director of special projects for NCEA.
Inspired by St. Thérèse
In Vermont, newly appointed Bishop Christopher Coyne said the digital option is a way to offer a Catholic education in sparsely populated areas. It is also expected to be more affordable. Tuition is tentatively pegged at about $5,000, noticeably less than what is charged at the two high schools in the state’s main population centers. Rice Memorial High School near Burlington charges $9,395; at Mount St. Joseph Academy in Rutland, it is $6,400.
The school will be named the St. Thérèse Digital Academy. Bishop Coyne, who is an active user of social media, said he came up with the name after reflecting on how St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s teaching applies to digital culture.
“I started thinking she could be the patron saint of the digital culture because she showed us how to love God in each and every moment of our life; and being present in the digital culture is really being present in a lot of small moments in a lot of small events,” Bishop Coyne said.
The model of a digital school, as innovative as it is itself, is getting an additional twist in Vermont.
While students will do most of their learning online for four days of the school week, the fifth will involve in-person meetings at regional hubs located within an hour drive of the students who attend. Students will meet in parish halls or other similar locations for socialization, faith formation and Mass, according to Religious Sister of Mercy Laura Della Santa, the diocesan superintendent of schools for Burlington.
The flexibility of Vermont’s model promises other adaptations. For example, in addition to full-time students, the school hopes to draw home-school students as part-time pupils, according to Sister Laura. “It’s exciting, isn’t it?” she said, reflecting on the potential of the school.
The diocese’s foray into digital learning is already attracting attention outside Vermont. Bishop Coyne said the diocese has heard from officials in Hawaii who are interested in the digital academy. And the diocese hopes the online school will attract students from the neighboring states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New York.
Sister Laura said diocesan officials are confident there is enough interest for the school to open. The main question, she suggested, is where the interest will be distributed in the state. This month, the diocese released an online survey on its website to gauge just that, plus other information from prospective parents, such as how much they would be willing to pay in tuition and how far they would be willing to drive for the one-day-a-week meetings.
In just one week in January, she said, the survey had drawn more than 700 page views.
Demand for Online Learning
The experience of Jesuit Virtual Learning Academy demonstrates that there is certainly demand for online learning in a national context. Jeff Hausman, founder and executive director, said about 60 schools — Jesuit and other Catholic institutions — spanning Seattle to Puerto Rico, have signed up. The academy has a current total enrollment of approximately 2,000 students, including two large-enrollment classes — health and financial education — where students study at their own pace.
The Archdiocese of Miami Virtual Catholic School, likewise, draws students from California to the Turks and Caicos Islands south of the Bahamas. The school opened with an enrollment of 64 students in all four high-school grades. It currently has 104 students and now spans grades six to 12. Last summer 230 were enrolled.
Out of those currently enrolled, a little under a third are full-time students, a handful are home-schoolers, and the rest hail from nearly 30 schools that turn to the Miami school to supplement their offerings or fill a gap in faculty. (One-third are out-of-state students.)
“We do everything a traditional brick-and-mortar school does; we just are virtual in nature. All of our teachers are Catholic schoolteachers. The curriculum is a Catholic-school curriculum,” said Rebeca Bautista, the principal of the Archdiocese of Miami Virtual Catholic School.
One parent said the courses at the school had many benefits to her as a home-schooler.
“The digital courses appealed to us because they provide access to high-level thinking skills and content, but allow us as parents to be an active part of our child’s education, while providing a wholesome learning environment where our faith and values are paramount. The courses provide a springboard for learning extensions in our daily life and spark lively discussions around the dinner table. We feel we are providing our daughter with 21st-century skills and learning opportunities without compromising our roles as her primary educators as indicated by the Church,” said Ann Gonyaw.
Gonyaw’s seventh-grade daughter began taking “World History” at the Miami school last fall and then added “Language Arts.” She is also auditing theology and photography classes. “We home school and use other curriculum materials for math and science. She is much more motivated by her virtual courses and is looking forward to extending her course load next year,” Gonyaw said.
At the Jesuit academy, Hausman said teachers both record lectures on video and deliver them in real time. Students and teachers interact via an advanced Skype-like platform. Assignments can be uploaded, but exams are sometimes proctored at the students’ physical school location, Hausman said.
As at the Miami school, other Catholic schools come knocking at the Jesuit Virtual Learning Academy’s digital door for all sorts of reasons, according to Hausman. Some may have a sudden vacancy in their teaching staff. Others want to expand their language offerings but do not have the resources to do so themselves. Yet others may have a small group of students that wants to pursue advanced learning in a certain subject beyond what is normally in the school’s course catalogue.
Tuition — which the school, not the parent pays — varies widely at the Jesuit academy. An AP course costs $350 per student. The tuition for the two larger-enrollment classes is much lower, from $10 to $22, according to Hausman.
Gonyaw, who lives in Derby Line, Vt., on the Canadian border, is now on a diocesan committee that is studying the possibility of opening its own digital high school.
“The St. Thérèse Digital Academy appeals to us because it supports our efforts to provide a Catholic education for our children in a state with only two brick-and-mortar Catholic high schools. It also gives us the flexibility to provide a home environment blended together with a Catholic school setting one day per week,” Gonyaw said.
‘Meaningful and Relevant’
Sister Laura said St. Thérèse Digital Academy will utilize some of the courses from Hausman’s academy to get it off the ground. St. Thérèse is also forming a similar partnership with the Miami school. Eventually, the Vermont school will develop its own online platform and course offerings, according to Sister Laura. Once the school is fully operational, it will seek accreditation with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, she said.
Asked what have been the biggest lesson in his academy’s experience, Hausman responded: “Just like a bricks-and-mortar setting, what makes this different from what you get from a public offering? Something’s got to be — something more there that makes it meaningful and relevant.”
Register correspondent Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.