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Staff Photo by Grant Morris

Taylor Wilmot sits in her English Composition class, Tuesday afternoon at Nashua Community College. Wilmot, a freshman, is one of twelve to graduate in 2010 from Virtual Learning Academy. Wilmot said that she liked the way the curriculum fit around her schedule.
Friday, July 30, 2010

Online high school grad continues education in college setting

NASHUA – Taylor Wilmot received her high school diploma in the mail, never having met any of her teachers or classmates.

Wilmot, 18, was one of the first graduates of the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, an online public charter school. She graduated in June, along with 11 other students, making up the school’s first graduating class. The school is based in Exeter, but Wilmot never set foot in town, taking all of her courses from her Nashua home. She is spending her summer taking a writing class at Nashua Community College, where she will enroll full time in the fall. The class she is taking now isn’t online, but in a building with a teacher at the front of the classroom.

Going back to the old-school way of learning has been an adjustment.

“I love being around people. It’s nice and refreshing to go to a school,” Wilmot said. “But at the same time, I’m sitting there for four hours. I didn’t miss sitting in those hard chairs with a desk.”

The Virtual Learning Academy, one of 11 charter schools in the state, is available to all New Hampshire high school students, tuition-free. It first opened in 2007 and now has an enrollment of 3,000 students, almost all of whom are part-time students.

Kyle Cote, director of guidance for the school, said there were about 60 full-time students last year, like Wilmot, who were taking all of their high school courses online and pursuing their diplomas with the school. The students who made up the first graduating class were from all over the state, from Dover to West Chesterfield.

“We’re growing and people are starting to understand it’s a solid educational option,” Cote said.

The part-time students are made up primarily of students enrolled in traditional public high schools looking to take extra courses, as well as students in private schools and home-school programs, Cote said.

The school held a graduation ceremony for its dozen full-time graduates at the end of the school year, but Wilmot chose not to go, feeling it would be awkward to celebrate with a bunch of people she’d never met before. But when she received her diploma in the mail, she felt pride and accomplishment, given the struggles she had earlier in her high school career.

Wilmot grew up in Nashua, attending private schools her whole life. She went to Bishop Guertin High School her freshman year, but when her family ran into some financial issues, she transferred to Nashua High School North. It was a big change going to public school and Wilmot didn’t like it. She found it difficult to make friends and felt she wasn’t learning anything. At one point, she stopped going completely. That is when administrators suggested the virtual option.

“I thought it was something different, but I didn’t know what to expect, honestly,” said Wilmot.

She enrolled in the spring of her junior year and took to the format immediately. All of the courses were online, including traditional classes like math, English and science. She could choose her own pace and she could log in and go to class whenever she wanted. That flexibility meant she could work more hours at her job at Dunkin’ Donuts and still make time for school.

“There was no specific time you had to log in,” she said. “If it was 2 in the morning and I wanted to go to school, I could.”

Wilmot said the school, while suited to her needs, requires a great deal of self-motivation. It would be easy to sit at home, check Facebook and watch TV all day, but Wilmot said she wanted to learn, which made the school a perfect fit. While the responsibility is on the student to do the work, Wilmot said the school provided assistance when it was needed. There is a monthly check in from the teacher and if she ever had trouble with something, Wilmot said there were always instructors available.

“If you’re not meeting up to a grade, they’re going to call you and ask if you need help,” she said. “They’re always checking up on everything.”

One of the questions Wilmot would get most often from those unfamiliar with the school was how she would take tests. Wilmot said the tests are also administered online and there is a proctor which prevents the user from visiting any other websites during the test to prevent cheating.

Wilmot stayed at the school for her senior year and finished this year. While her diploma is from Virtual Learning Academy, it includes credits she earned from Bishop Guertin and North.

Wilmot isn’t sure what she wants to study in college. She plans on attending Nashua Community College for two years, then transferring to a four-year school. She would recommend the school, but cautioned that students need to be motivated and be able to manage their time.

“A lot of people think it’s too easy, but it’s not. You have to have a lot of self-control,” she said.

Cote said the school works with students to take courses that may seem difficult to do in the cyber world, such as physical education.

The school does have a gym class that has students doing their own exercising and logging their workouts for the class, she said.

Cote said all of the school’s teachers are certified and have Highly Qualified Teacher status. Most of the teacher work in traditional public schools across the state and teach online courses to earn extra income.

The school did just recently hire its first set of full-time instructors. Admissions are accepted year-round and students can start courses at any time. There is an admissions process for students who want to attend on a full-time basis, she said.

While she doesn’t regret choosing the online option, Wilmot said one of the downsides was missing social events, such as her senior prom. Wilmot could have gone to the prom, but not being a student at North, she didn’t have any interest.

“When you stay at home and work, people don’t see you every day and they kind of distance themselves,” she said. “But at the same time, my education is more important and I got it finished.”

Michael Brindley can be reached at 594-6426 or mbrindley@nashuatelegraph.com.