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August 22, 2014

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He’s graduating, and didn’t spend a day in class

First four-year Virtual High School student ‘wonderful ambassador’

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Leila Navidi

Matt Sosa, 17, in the yard of his Las Vegas home Thursday, will be the first student of Clark County’s Virtual High School to spend all four years in the program and will graduate this year. Sosa, who enrolled for medical reasons, says online learning isn’t for everyone and self-discipline is key to success.

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  • Matt Sosa advises students on what to think about before deciding to commit to virtual school.

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  • Sosa discusses the differences in how he manages his time compared to students that attend traditional high school.

When 18-year-old Matt Sosa graduates this spring, he will do so without having attended even one class at a bricks-and-mortar high school.

Instead, he’s spent the past four years downloading his teachers’ lectures onto his home computer, participating in group discussions via live chat rooms and e-mailing his homework. Sosa will be the first graduate of the Clark County School District’s Virtual High School to complete grades 9-12 through the program.

Virtual learning isn’t for every student, Sosa said.

“You may spend less time in class, but it takes a lot more dedication,” Sosa said. “You can fall behind so quickly. You don’t have a teacher there every day telling you to get stuff done. It takes a certain level of self-discipline.”

The School District has offered “distance education” classes since 1998. For some students, it’s a way to take a specialized class that isn’t offered at their home high school, such as Advanced Placement German. For others, the program gives them a chance to catch up on missing academic credits to graduate on time.

The district launched its Virtual High School in 2004, offering students a chance to enroll full time rather than for just a class or two. The first diplomas were handed out the following spring.

When Sosa signed up, he figured it would be a short-term solution, a way to keep up with his classes while recovering from leg surgery.

When he was a sixth grade honor student at Sig Rogich Middle School, he had to have a tumor the size of his fist removed from his leg.

Surgeons inserted metal pins and plates to hold his femur in place while it healed and grew. Sosa was told he would need another operation in about two years to remove the metal. His mother worried about him attending an overcrowded high school, where jostling crowds could have caused a disastrous injury.

When they discovered the Virtual High School had just “opened its doors,” Sosa “was just in awe” that the option was available, he said. “I thought I would have to go to a regular high school and tough it out.”

He ended up staying in the program because he concluded it was the best fit for his learning style. “If you’re a morning person, you can get your work done then,” he said. “If you’re a night owl like me, you can do it late. It’s all up to you.”

On most mornings, he is up by 10 a.m. He starts his day by surfing the Web and catching up on the news. About noon he logs on to the school’s interactive Web site and checks his homework. Between 2 and 6 p.m. he attends the “instructional support” sessions offered by his teachers, which combine online lectures with a chance to ask questions. The sessions are recorded, and students can go back and replay them at any time. In the evening he makes dinner for his family, and then gets back online to work on his assignments or chat with friends. Bedtime is usually about 2 a.m.

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Virtual High School has about 650 part-time students and 150 full-time students, including the 30 seniors expected to graduate this year. The program is popular with students for whom the traditional high school schedule is problematic, including elite athletes, professional actors and teen parents.

“Our students can travel anywhere and keep up with their studies,” said Essington Wade, Virtual High School’s principal. “We are open 24/7.”

Although Virtual High may not be well-known, it’s not without competition.

Odyssey Charter School, sponsored by the Clark County School Board in 1999, currently has about 1,400 students enrolled in grades K-12. Teachers visit Odyssey’s K-7 students at home once a week, while students in grades 8-12 are required to attend weekly classes on campus.

Two state-sponsored virtual charter schools, Nevada Connections Academy and Nevada Virtual Academy, opened in August. Both have contracted with out-of-state commercial education companies for online curricula and services. Buoyed by aggressive marketing campaigns, enrollment at both schools quickly reached capacity. Students are provided with most supplies, including home computers and microscopes for science projects.

Virtual High lacks the funds to compete with the newcomers when it comes to promotion. But Wade said he’s doing what he can to raise the program’s profile. He points to Virtual High students’ strong academic performance on standardized tests and the solid pass rate on the high school proficiency exam.

He’s hoping to see more applicants for the fall semester. Students interested in enrolling full time are interviewed and their academic records are reviewed. Poor attendance histories are considered red flags, but even those students may be admitted for a probationary period because the school was intended to help students who haven’t flourished in the traditional environment.

In the past year, in response to requests from parents, Wade has increased the level of interaction between teachers and students to better monitor progress and to respond more quickly when the students fall behind.

Sosa is the first to admit there have been a few rocky periods in his academic career, when procrastination won out over diligence. But he buckled down and carries a 3.4 grade-point average.

“There were some struggles, and we all worked hard to get him back on track,” Wade said. “Matt is a wonderful ambassador for us.”

Sosa knows about a dozen of his virtual classmates, but talks regularly with only a few of them. Virtual High students are eligible to participate in activities at their home high schools, and Sosa plays cello in Sierra Vista’s orchestra. That’s been an important social network for Sosa, who admits that virtual learning can get a little lonely.

The isolation “is one of the main issues facing Virtual High School,” Sosa said. “The Student Council is working on it.”

Is he on the Student Council?

“I am the Student Council,” Sosa says, then laughs.

His academic course load is ambitious this year. He’s taking honors American literature as well as Advanced Placement biology, and has already passed the Advanced Placement exams for English composition and economics.

Perhaps most important, Virtual High School has prepared him well for college, he said.

Sosa scored a 33 out of a possible 36 on his college entrance exam, has been accepted by UNLV and is planning on a career in medicine.

He says he doesn’t have any regrets about skipping the traditional high school experience. The glimpse he gets attending orchestra practice is enough for him.

Sometimes when he passes a classroom, he sees students slumped in their seats, passing notes and goofing off.

“You’re there to learn,” Sosa said. “Why waste your time and the teacher’s time like that?”

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