Focus: Credit Recovery

A District’s Move to Virtual Summer Coursework


Faced with constraints that range from budget and time limits to transportation and student commitment, school districts are challenged to provide learning opportunities for students during the summer months.

Urged to “do more with less,” New Hanover County Schools in Wilmington, N.C., transitioned to online summer high school courses with strategic support for all students, especially those enrolled in credit-recovery classes. Over four years, the district was able to increase the number of students served and to expand the variety of courses offered during the summer.

In 2011, the district began using North Carolina Virtual Public School, a supplemental service for the state’s public schools that provides teacher-led, online courses aligned to the Common Core standards and North Carolina Essential Standards. This virtual academy model comprises an eight-week summer session with labs at five of the district’s seven high schools. The labs are staffed by coordinators responsible for instructional support for all students. Credit-recovery students are required to physically attend the lab sessions, while others have the option to remain off campus.

By last summer, the district dramatically expanded its virtual academy, doubling the number of students served to 373 and increasing the number of courses offered to 61. Improvements to the model resulted in an increase in credit-recovery pass rates from 48 to 57 percent. Additionally, students enrolled in traditional courses experienced pass rates in the 80th percentile.

Important Tactics

Here are key considerations for district leaders who wish to build and operate an effective virtual summer academy.

Respond to feedback. For the first two years of the program, the district provided one centrally located computer lab, staffed by an administrator and two computer resource assistants. Some credit recovery students did not attend the lab and received only the support provided virtually by their online instructors. Most students pursuing traditional courses worked from home with no support from the lab. Students reported that lack of transportation to the lab hindered their attendance.

In response, the district expanded the availability of summer school labs to five regionally located secondary campuses throughout the district in 2013. While the performance of credit-recovery students remained stable, the pass rate for traditional courses increased.

Build support networks. Expanding to campuses throughout the district allowed more students to attend the labs. There was high turnover among coordinators at three of the five campuses during the summer of 2013. This hindered coordinator training efforts and impeded the implementation of quality student support.

At the beginning of the next academic year, teachers and staff members were hired to maintain and support virtual learning labs during the school year and into the summer session. This consistency made students feel more connected, which, in turn, made them more likely to use lab support.

Identify needs. By tracking credit-recovery needs and pass rates for specific courses, the district identified high-need areas, such as Credit Recovery Math 1. In summer 2014, the district hired a math teacher to serve as a virtual tutor, available Monday through Thursday for four hours per day via Skype, Blackboard Collaborate and other networking tools.

Additional math tutoring was helpful to those who availed themselves of it. However, many students were resistant to virtual tutoring and did not use it. Feedback indicates that face-to-face tutoring is the optimal format for most credit-recovery math students. This need will be addressed in the coming summer.

Develop soft skills. In the virtual academy’s third summer, students were surveyed about the benefits and challenges of online learning. The ability to work at one’s own pace was among the benefits, while challenges included time management, delayed instructor response and responsibility for one’s own learning. Most students reported receiving no guidance from instructors on how to adapt to online learning.

In response, during the following summer, students received daily intervention and training on the soft skills of online learning, such as navigation, pacing and self-advocacy. Students working off-site received weekly support from the coordinators via e-mail, Skype or FaceTime.

Stakeholder Connections

Over time, the school district has increased support to online students and their parents with information sessions, quarterly newsletters, biweekly student progress e-mails and tutorials to support online navigation.

New Hanover County’s virtual academy expects another successful term this summer, which begins in June. District staff will continue to refine the program based on the experiences of students and teachers.

Amy Garrett Dikkers is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. E-mail: Twitter: @Konijn  

Somer Lewis, professional development system director at the university’s Watson College of Education, and Wendy Kraft, supervisor of online learning at New Hanover County Schools in Wilmington, N.C., contributed to this article.