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Training and Development

Nebraska: 'Online high school' to boost graduation rates

There are numerous issues associated with high school: such as bullying, class distraction and poor teaching. In fact, classrooms are simply not the best working environment for many teenagers and present many additional issues, from cost to location.

Now, since 2011, Nebraska’s Virtual Scholars Program has allowed students to supplement their education with online courses. And each year more scholarships have been offered to increase opportunities for everyone. We caught up with Barbara Shousha, University of Nebraska High School (UNHS) Director, to learn more.

Can you describe what the Virtual Scholars Program is?

Nebraska Virtual Scholars is one of many programs provided by the University of Nebraska to increase student access to education and inspire students in their educational and career goals. Through it, schools provide University of Nebraska High School courses to their students to solve a variety of issues such as diversifying course offerings, keeping students on the path to graduation, accelerating students in their course work, addressing teacher shortages and solving budget constraints.

This is the fourth year the president’s office has offered the program, with more than 350 scholars provided so far. This year, 150 scholarships will be provided to schools state-wide in October.

You have just launched 150 new scholarships, but can you describe how this program has developed since it launched in 2011?

The program was first initiated by then University of Nebraska President James B. Milliken who, in the fall of 2011, provided 75 UNHS course scholarships to students state-wide. 

During the second phase in 2013, President Milliken provided scholarships for 100 courses through the University of Nebraska High School.  Again, the focus was directed at the challenges facing schools, which were and continue to be: budget constraints, minimal staffing, and limited curriculum offerings. 

In 2014, Interim President Dr. James Linder, awarded 208 scholarships, so as you can see the demand for these types of courses has continued to increase.

Now, in our fourth year, University President Hank Bounds has directed us to launch 150 scholarships, and we hope to reach even more students and school districts throughout the entire state of Nebraska.  In total, through Nebraska Virtual Scholars UNHS has served students in about one-third of Nebraska counties. 

How does it currently work in practice?

Nebraska school administrators and counsellors assess their needs and students’ needs and complete a short application form online, which asks them how the scholarships will help address their particular situation or issue and how many scholarships they would like to have awarded to them. We also ask how they plan to measure outcomes of the program and what courses are they interested in using the scholarships for with students. 

All the applications are then reviewed by a committee of UNHS staff members and a limited number of applicants are chosen to receive scholarships. Letters of confirmation and congratulations as to the selected winners are sent to all applicants shortly thereafter. Schools then register students and follow the usual process for students getting their materials and completing the courses.

Are any other US states running similar initiatives?

There are online high school programs in some other states, but we are not aware of another accredited online school offering a broad scholarship program to a state.  We have been serving students with distance education for more than 85 years and an important strength of our online high school is our continued connection to the university, a top research institution.

How good are education rates in Nebraska compared to other US states?

Nebraska carries a highly regarded state-wide graduation rate of 89.68% (2014).

What impact has this initiative had on education rates across the state?

The goal of the program is to learn more about the needs of schools and design courses to help them meet those needs. Over the last four years we have strengthened our offerings in STEM in response to the information we learned from applications. 

Do you have any feedback on how high school students find online courses compared to their real-life alternatives?

Our courses are very much ‘real-life’, requiring teacher-student interaction and intense engagement with the content. They are written and designed to meet standards such as NCAA-approval and CollegeBoard approval. Our school is also accredited by the Nebraska Department of Education and AdvancED, so it truly is a school.

In terms of how online courses compare with students’ local school ‘in-person’ classes, students often comment about how the UNHS courses were more challenging for them and required more of their attention and focus in many ways. They have shared that they had to be more organised and accountable because the teacher isn’t right there to remind them of deadlines and answer questions immediately—they have to plan ahead.

Educators we work with appreciate these types of external lessons from their students taking our courses. It really prepares students for college in that they must take control of their own education as well as master the material.

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