Vernonia High School has started a Distance Learning program through Portland Community College (PCC) which allows Vernonia students to concurrently earn both high school and college credits.
“It is critical for us to have opportunities for our students to earn college credits before they leave high school,” said Vernonia School District Superintendent Aaron Miller about the program. “There are lots of high school programs that are providing dual credits and we need to continue to look at opportunities like that for our kids. It helps solidify their learning in high school and it gets them thinking about their future and their plans and how they’re going to get there. It’s an essential piece of our education process.”
The Distance Learning Program began this fall as a pilot program and has been operating smoothly so far. According to high school principal Nate Underwood and School Counselor Pete Weisel, the program was initiated last spring when Vernonia juniors and some high achieving sophomores were offered an opportunity to take the Compass college placement testing. With limited funding the District still wanted to find a way to begin offering students who were ready, and could test into college level courses, some type of expanded educational opportunity.
“We wanted to see what classes they were interested in and what they were able to test into,” said Weisel. “This is a way for us to replace Advanced Placement classes. The District doesn’t have enough students to justify paying a teacher to teach these types of classes, but we can still provide students with some college level cirriculum.”
“I think this is a step in the right direction to meet the academic needs of our students,” says Underwood. “It’s a baby step, but it is a step for us.”
Weisel says that not only is this a pilot project for VHS, but it is also a pilot project for PCC, who Weisel says hasn’t really worked this way with a high school before. “With PCC expanding into Columbia County with a physical location in the next few years, we’re hoping that having that campus here will only help our students in terms of having access to PCC instructors,” says Weisel.
Kelly Marks is the Coordinator of Rural Initiatives at PCC and has been involved with the Vernonia community since the Oregon Solutions process following the flood in 2007. “PCC is very excited to be working with the Vernonia School District as part of this pilot project,” said Marks during a recent phone interview. “We are always looking for ways to provide access and opportunities for students to earn advanced credits. This model of delivery has the potential to be replicated in other high schools in Columbia County and other school districts in the area.”
According to Underwood, during the Compass testing sixteen Vernonia students placed high enough to take Writing 121, a college level writing course, this fall. This initial class will serve as a pilot semester and allows the school district to assess the success of the program and make adjustments. Based on the results so far, Underwood says he expects several other eligible students will be offered a chance to take either a math or science class this spring.
“The classes we will offer will be based on student interest in taking some type of class that we are not able to offer,” says Underwood. According to Superintendent Miller many high schools now offer students an opportunity to stay for a fifth year and earn college credits. Some students are leaving high school with a college Associates Degree. “It’s the wave of the future for students to get as many college credits as possible before they graduate from high school,” agrees Underwood.
Underwood noted that this year the District budgeted for students to take one distance learning class each per year. “If this is successful then the next step is that funding these classes needs to become part of our budget each year,” says Underwood.
Underwood said testing was not done until May and June last year and registration for the fall class was hampered because of summer vacation.
This year Underwood says VHS will start earlier and begin generating interest in the program between winter and spring breaks by distributing information, as well as offering a field trip to a PCC campus for placement testing. “We plan to head into next summer having already established which students will be taking distance learning classes next fall,” says Underwood.
Counselor Weisel has spent a lot of time helping establish the pilot program. “We’re hoping over time, if this is successful, to look for grants and other ways to expand what we can offer to our students,” says Weisel.
Weisel says a Distance Learning program really helps high achievers in a small rural school district. “Often times our teachers are forced to teach to the middle range of students.” Weisel says that students with learning disabilities receive extra help through special education programing and the students in the middle are taught at the level they are ready to learn at. “Our most advanced students are often not receiving the advanced instruction that we would like them to receive.”
Weisel notes that, as an example, larger school districts are able to provide several Chemistry classes at different levels of difficulty. Vernonia can only afford, and only has the demand, to offer one Chemistry class. “College courses could help solve that, where the students who are ready can move on to more rigorous academics than what we are otherwise offering.”
So far the results have been very positive during this first trial semester. Weisel says the program has been receiving positive comments from both parents and students. Underwood adds that, “This has been a good bunch of kids that we started with. They are very self motivated.”
Miller, Underwood and Weisel all agree that the goal is to eventually develop the program and offer a broad array of classes. “We’re starting out slow and focused,” says Weisel. “Over time we hope to offer a wider range of subjects.”
Underwood says the working relationship with PCC has been, “positive” so far. “We’re learning how to do things better and more efficiently over time,” adds Weisel.
“This program provides a good connection to our community partners at PCC and we’re going to continue to look at how we can expand it and get our kids as many opportunities as we can to gain credit,” said Superintendent Miller.
“The District is doing more to offer opportunities for our students than we have been able to in past years,” says Weisel. “We chip away at it and offer more each year. This is an exciting thing for us.”