Will serve students in communities without a Catholic high school
Catholic education in the Diocese of Richmond will erase borders with a new virtual school that will provide secondary education to students in the diocese and beyond. It will be the first virtual Catholic high school in the state.
Although the Richmond Diocese encompasses 33,244 square miles, there are only eight brick-and-mortar Catholic schools which provide high-school education. The four diocesan Catholic schools are Roanoke Catholic School; Peninsula Catholic High School (PCHS), Newport News; Catholic High School, Virginia Beach; and Blessed Sacrament Huguenot School, Powhatan. Four private Catholic high schools are also located in the diocese: Walsingham Academy Upper School, Williamsburg, and St. Gertrude School, Benedictine College Preparatory and Cristo Rey Richmond High School, all in Richmond.
This fall, the diocese will roll out St. Vincent de Paul Virtual Academy (SVVA), which will educate students in grades eight through 12. Its primary focus is to serve students within the diocese who don’t live near a Catholic school, but students from elsewhere can also enroll, said Kelly Lazzara, superintendent of Richmond Diocese Catholic Schools.
SVVA is a diocesan effort that PCHS will administer. It will provide an opportunity for at-home and in-person students to learn together in a live classroom with “passionate teachers and rigorous coursework,” said Kelly Smith, PCHS Theology Department chair.
Students don’t just sit and stare at a computer screen all day, said PCHS principal Janine Franklin. Using Zoom, special webcams and Chromebooks, at-home and in-person students participate together in class discussions, engage in activities, play educational games and collaborate with students in group and partner work.
Faith at the core
Like all Catholic schools, faith will be at the center of the virtual academy. Lazzara said Catholic education is “deeply rooted in the faith,” and Smith said the school teaches “through the lens of Scripture.” Heather Whitchurch, Social Studies Department chair, explained that teachers incorporate religious education across the curriculum. Virtual students attend live-streamed weekly Masses and annual retreats.
Besides living in outlying areas of the diocese, there are multiple reasons parents might choose virtual Catholic education for their children, according to Franklin and the PCHS website. For example, it can be a good fit for a student with a chronic illness, someone living with a person who is immunocompromised or an international student. It will also serve families that relocate out of the area for military or business transfers, as well families with members located in two different households.
The ability to take just a few classes may attract homeschooling families, students who want to take a course not offered at their current school or pupils who need to catch up on lost credits due to transfer to stay on track with graduation. SVVA can provide continuity for families who relocate often or whose family members live in two different locations.
This academic year, PCHS teachers have been instructing virtual and in-person students concurrently. Its success prompted the school in February to adopt a permanent virtual learning program as an educational option, Franklin said. Of the 271 students enrolled at the school, 67 have been learning online this school year.
The difference between the PCHS permanent virtual learning program and the virtual academy is that students in the PCHS program, whether part-time or full-time, live in the school’s area and can take part in extracurricular activities and social events. Full-time online learners can also participate in athletics along with their in-person peers. SVVA is strictly academic and can draw students from anywhere. Full-time online and in-person students can earn a diploma in either venue.
When the virtual academy opens in the fall, PCHS teachers will continue to teach concurrently, but that could change in the future if virtual student enrollment increases enough to have separate classes. Regardless, both online and in-person students would continue receiving the same “high-quality college prep program,” Franklin said. SVVA might add elementary and middle-school grades later.
“The interest will drive how the school evolves,” Lazzara said.
COVID ‘expedited the process’
To keep classes small, the maximum number of in-person students will be 18 to 20 per class next school year. The goal is to add five virtual learners for eighth grade and 15 per grade level for ninth through 12th grades.
Lazzara said the idea for a virtual school in the diocese has been under discussion for a while, and although it wasn’t created as a reaction to COVID, the pandemic “expedited the process” because it illustrated teachers’ ability to educate virtually.
Likewise, Mike Pilola, chair of PCHS English Department, said, “I think before COVID, fear would have held us back from working and learning from home, but the pandemic really forced us to rip that Band Aid off.” Nevertheless, learning virtually can be more challenging, and it teaches self-reliance, time management and the ability to focus, Smith said.
Because of its forward thinking, PCHS is poised to administer SVVA. Beginning in 2016, PCHS had digital learning days six times a year during which teachers taught students remotely as practice for inclement weather.
As a result, when schools transitioned from in-person learning to virtual due to COVID last spring, PCHS already had the technology, resources and infrastructure, and teachers and students were familiar with online learning, Franklin said.
She added that the transition last year went “smoothly” with much effort behind the scenes. Working together, teachers overcame technical glitches, learned online educational platforms and shared teaching strategies. Franklin said frequent professional development for teachers has been vital to the program’s success and will continue over the summer.
Smith said last spring “was unsettling to have to move into a completely new environment not knowing how long we were going to be there,” but teachers, “rallying together,” have “risen to the challenge.”
Students can apply to St. Vincent de Paul Virtual Academy through PCHS. Additional information can be found on the school website at peninsulacatholic.org.