Virtual Classrooms in New Hampshire Almost Ready to Go

Students in Manchester, New Hampshire are scheduled to return to school for their winter quarter on January 22nd, and school officials in the state are certain that that will be enough time to get “virtual” classrooms in their high schools up and running. The new blended classrooms are part of the plan to reduce overcrowding in the district’s three high schools, and will allow students to take courses via the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School.

The plan was championed by Superintendent Thomas Brennan, who announced it in November of 2012. Mayor Ted Gatsas drove the fundraising effort, gathering more than $35,000 in donations from the business community.

In addition to allowing students to take classes from V-LACS, high schools will also boast remote classrooms where students from any of the three high schools will be able to take courses offered in the other two via interactive video screens.

Brennan has estimated the cost for three “blended learning labs” at $30,000 for hardware and $43,500 per semester for three lab facilitators. Equipping the remote classrooms would cost around $3,700 each.  Brennan did not return a call for comment regarding the details of the plan.

Although this kind of technological approach has been embraced by both Gatsas and Brennan, parents and school board members aren’t as enthusiastic. Many are calling on the district to deal with the overcrowding problem by hiring more teachers rather than employ an unproven solution like blended learning. However, Gatsas proved that he was undeterred, saying that virtual learning is a valuable experiment in its own right — and could prove to be legitimate way to deliver knowledge to NH students in the future.

Amid the district’s financial woes, Gatsas has increasingly reached out to local businesses and charities to support initiatives he’s backed. He was able to raise $25,000 to fund a national search for a new superintendent for the district. Gatsas said he didn’t think members of the business community felt imposed on. “People in the business community have stepped up,” he said.

The enthusiasm from the business community to be a part of the new initiative could be explained by the recent change in rules that made it possible to offer advertising in schools. Companies from around the district and around the state are already meeting with district leaders with many of them looking for opportunities to advertise in the new virtual classrooms.

Both the city’s fiscal woes and their attempt to find an answer in technology have drawn attention in the past several months. Brennan’s plan was extensively covered in The New York Times, and an editorial in The Boston Globe called on residents to give the plan a chance to succeed instead of rejecting it outright.