Going to school, from the privacy of your home

CALUMET – Public education in the 21st century involves an expanding use of technology, and that includes an increase in online learning.

Darryl Pierce, superintendent of the Public Schools of Calumet, Laurium & Keweenaw, said that district and Gladstone Area Schools have partnered to offer the online Upper Peninsula Virtual Academy.

As its name implies, Pierce said the UPVA offers online courses free of cost to students in all 55 local school districts in the U.P.

“I was interested in making available online courses across the Upper Peninsula,” Pierce said of the impetus to create the UPVA.

Although C-L-K has offered online courses for its students, Pierce said state law restricts those offering online learning only to students within a local school district or to students in districts contiguous to it.

In December, Pierce said he started thinking about how to create a U.P.-wide online program. Since he had a good working relationship with Gladstone Area Schools Superintendent Jay Kulbertis, he began talks with him about a partnership, and Kulbertis was “very receptive” to the idea. With the C-L-K and Gladstone districts partnered, they are able to reach all other local districts in the U.P.

Now, students in Iron Mountain, Ironwood, Marquette and Copper Country school districtswill take the UPVA classes as C-L-K school-of-choice students. All the local school districts in the eastern and southern parts of the U.P. will be Gladstone Area Schools school-of-choice students. The program is ready for the 2013-14 school year.

Once he and Kulbertis agreed on the idea of the UPVA, Pierce said they had to get approval from the Michigan Department of Education, because state law requires students to have 1,098 hours of “seat time” in their school buildings each school year.

“We had to get several waivers from the state board of education (for the students who would take part in the UPVA),” he said.

Pierce said C-L-K currently offers online learning for its students in 6th through 12th grade, but with the UPVA, they were able to get another state waiver to allow K-5 students to use the UPVA.

“We’re one of the few local public schools in the state to have that waiver,” he said.

Pierce said each student using the UPVA is allowed to take up to 12 courses per semester.

“We have an extensive course listing,” he said. “It meets all the state mandates.”

There are more electives available with UPVA than are offered at C-L-K, Pierce said.

Although students who will use UPVA must finish their classes by the end of each semester, Pierce said they can also finish earlier if they so choose.

“You can move as fast or as slow as you want,” he said. “What (students) want is flexibility in their family and student schedule. We’re here to match our families.”

One of the concerns some people have expressed regarding online learning is lack of oversight of those offering the classes, and although that may be an issue with private online education companies, Pierce said since the UPVA will be a branch of public education, there will be oversight. Each student will have a teacher and a mentor available to him or her. The mentor will make certain the student logs in to the program regularly and is following the requirements of each course.

Because there are many families living in remote areas in the U.P., Pierce said the UPVA will be a useful way for those students to access education.

“We want to reach out to those families,” he said.

Evaluation of the program will come mostly from students and parents, Pierce said.

“We encourage them to let us know how we are doing,” he said.

The UPVA website is located at upva.net, and Pierce said parents can register there.

“We are taking enrollment now,” he said.

Pierce said there may be a misconception about online learning being impersonal and not focused on the student.

“Virtual learning is not students learning from computers, but learning from teachers through computers,” he said. “At UPVA, your child will receive a high-quality education from home for free.”