Is the Bayfield “Virtual High School” simply another alternative?

Yes, there really are private virtual high schools on the Internet now. And, to prove it I recently approached freelance writer Cathy Cove for permission to republish one of her Goderich Signal Star about Virtual High School (Ontario).

It is an amazing story about how innovative thinking can change the way things are done, particularly for students who may have special needs, such as attention deficit disorder, are recovering from a health crisis (replacing homeschooling, for example), simply don’t like sitting in a regular classroom, or are international students who want Ontario preparation courses. I mean, why not?

This school is private but there is no reason that a public board cannot do the same — with qualified teachers who are not only members of the Ontario College of Teachers but members of a teachers’ union as well.  And so, here is the column about another type of alternative school, with my thanks.

By Cathy Cove
Freelance to the Goderich Signal Star

At a time when we’ve been deluged with media reports on the looming crisis in public education as a result of a predicted decline in student enrolments it was a breath of fresh air to be introduced to the Bayfield Ontario-based Virtual High School (VHS).

The school’s administration hub occupies a modest 1,000 square foot space at the north end of Bayfield.

Officially begun in 1995, VHS Principal Steve Baker speaks proudly of how the whole concept of virtual learning was actually pioneered right here in Huron County at GDCI under the Huron County Board of Education. As a matter of fact the GDCI Grade 11 biology course taught that same year was the first online courses to be taught in Canada.

The philosophy Principal Baker sees as the backbone of the VHS is that it’s a school that fits the student rather than forcing the student to fit the school. “Not all kids do well in a traditional classroom setting. The Virtual High School allows for a student to receive a fluid and flexible education at his/her own pace,” said Baker.“We don’t do any formal advertising.  The students find us through the internet,” he explained.

Enrolment at the time of this interview stands at 3500 students from as far away as Thailand, with students from Ontario making up the bulk of the VHS student body. Students can take one course, upgrade a mark, pick up a course to meet a post-secondary requirement or earn their high-school diploma fully online.Students may start a course at any time during the year and progress at their own pace.

Cost to the student is per course and could range anywhere from $400 to $600 depending on the course.

VHS meets the educational needs of students with special needs, homeschooled students, students who have been bullied, and students who require more tailored and flexible learning. The VHS is accessible to students 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, opening up lines of communication between teachers and students that further enhance the on-line learning experience.

Students are evaluated on an on-going basis and are able to get test results immediately as well as feedback from the teacher.Final exams are closed book proctored tests usually written on a day and place chosen by the student who also is responsible for arranging for a proctor to observe the student during the test period.

Certified teachers at VHS are free to develop their own programs and are expected to be available to students around the clock. They must be multi-faceted and anticipate the needs of the student in a very student -centric way. Teachers are paid per student and are judged on the basis of the student results. “We have the ability to let teachers go who don’t fit our requirements,” said Mr. Baker.

Responding to the criticism that virtual learning students suffer from lack of real-time social interaction, VHS teacher Vance McPherson doesn’t see it. As a teacher who has worked in a traditional classroom setting, McPherson finds the nature of teacher/student relationships much broader and deeper through virtual learning. “All students are equal at VHS. It’s very comfortable and a much more relaxed relationship with students who wouldn’t normally get noticed in a regular class setting,” he added.

Virtual learning requires a much different skill set and self-discipline from the students. “Students are empowered because virtual learning encourages them to be their own advocates of their learning,” teacher McPherson said. Learning at VHS is not isolated at all. Teachers and students have many different avenues for self-expression and interaction through online discussions and focus-group activities.

“The Virtual High School demonstrates as do other exceptional schools that all students can learn to a high standard,” says Malkin Dare, President of the Society of Quality Education.

Looking to the future Principal Baker shared that the school will be setting up its permanent administration centre on Main St. in Bayfield. Baker is also looking to expand virtual learning to elementary level programs.

Having choices in education through schools like the Virtual High School means that choice is no longer the luxury afforded to urban centres. In Canada, schools like VHS are opening up minds and possibilities to those thousands of students who feel that online learning meets their needs best.

And to think that it was pioneered right here in Huron County serves as a credit to those who saw its potential and acted on it.

Endnote: GDCI stands for Goderich District Collegiate Institute.

13 thoughts on “Is the Bayfield “Virtual High School” simply another alternative?

  1. I’m sorry “S.” I can’t publish your comment. I understand what you are saying but I simply don’t want to get into specific situations of unethical practice or bullying. Too many legal implications for me as a blogger. Suffice to say that a virtual school would definitely eliminate all those types of situations.


  2. how different is this program than the COPE program already in the Avon Maitland schools

    “COPE offers students the opportunity to earn credits in two ways:
    “correspondence style” courses for a range of academic credits and
    through the completion of Co-op credits”.


  3. “The COPE program [at Avon Maitland District School Board] is an alternative education program for students between 16 and 21 who have a hard time learning in the regular school program.” 60% of the COPE program also involves coop courses. Most students at VHS fall on the other side of the spectrum – they excel in school and are looking for ways of fast-tracking or taking courses of interest not offered by their school – or at least not offered when the student needs the course. The two most popular courses at VHS are ENG4U and MHF4U – typically not courses taken by COPE students. Over 90% of students taking courses at VHS are destined for University. However, VHS tries not to be elitist as evidenced by the fact that the highest student-growth sector is in the area of students with learning disabilities – where they are seeking a student-centric education that they may proceed through at their own pace. VHS and the Desire2Learn LMS allows the customization for the student accommodations. Flexible schooling!


  4. Thanks Steve for the information. For those who stop by, you should know that he is the principle of the Virtual School. I’d love to hear from students or former students of this school as well, what brought them to the point of taking part in such an innovative program, what they liked about it, what they didn’t like about it, and whether they would recommend it to others. It’s always good to have all sides in a discussion.

    However, I just wish that this type of option was around when my adult son was finishing high school. He has ADHD and yet is able to work on a computer for hours at a time. So, it would have been perfect.


  5. The article does say that the virtual learning model got its start with the Huron Board of Education, which was amalgamated with Perth to become the Avon Maitland DSB.

    I think it goes to show that when once choice was only available to those living in large urban centres, but it’s changing big time in small town Ontario with the success of VHS and the cropping up of several new private schools along the Lake Huron shore line.

    I happen to think that too many champions focus their choice efforts on Toronto and those larger centres when the opportunities to infuse more choice and awaken the populace is better in small town Ontario.


  6. Catherine — I am definitely impressed with what is happening in the Avon Maitland area. Think about the recent threads where we have been debating the financial situation with the the TDSB — maybe they should be a little more innovative rather than always griping. Re this Bayfield virtual school, we do have to remember that it is currently private. While their course prices are very reasonable at $399.00 or $499.00 a course, with 28 credits in an OSSD, that would be $11,200 to $14,000 a student. What is really interesting is that the current per student payment in the Ontario public system is between $12,474 and $20,728 — meaning if a voucher was given to a parent, it wouldn’t cost the gov’t any more money for a student to “go” to the Virtual High School — but would in fact even save money.

    Given that link, we obviously have another can of worms, which I will write about in the coming days. Why the $8,000 per pupil grant variation between Ontario school boards? No wonder some boards are screaming they are getting hammered. How can one board be expected to manage on $12,474 while a neighbouring one gets $20,728.

    By the way, read the comments under the North Bay Nugget’s article. Very interesting.


  7. By the way, I have been getting trolls on this thread. Why I don’t know. But, they should not waste their time. This is a serious blog where serious issues are discussed. In other words, I don’t approve comments about legally controversial issues, those that could be considered racist or reverse racism or those who mention specific people in a libelous way.


  8. My point was that the whole concept was born via one teacher at a public high school. The AMDSB still offers on-line education within the public walls. Principal Baker (a former teacher at the high school) chose another path that fit his vision and by all accounts seems to be working. He’s obviously meeting the need of 3500 students. It’s all part of the mix of educational choices. The lion’s share of folks will still choose the public school system but as the article says a tradition classroom setting is not for everyone. It should pose no threat to the public school system.

    Also think about the discussion about the new report cards. Perhaps Steve can tell us how reporting works at his school?

    re: North Bay Nugget comments – toxic but small boards face the same discrepancy with funding. Remember the Education Premier’s promise to help small boards? Yet we heard just last week that the TDSB is in trouble again financially.


  9. At one time on the MOE website it was possible to see what the per pupil amounts were per school board. Do you happen to know where that information is these days? As a matter of fact the MOE website used to have as a part of its “School Facts” option the PPF amount for a specific school year.

    Your link to the North Bay Nugget got me to wondering how varied the allocations are across the province?

    To Steve – is it possible for a student to do a whole year at the VHS? Might be interesting to see a comparison between what the two systems.


  10. Dan — I have never been able to find that information on the MOE site but the Society for Quality Education has an amazing site called “Sunshine on Our Schools.” If you go to this page and click on each board, you’ll get roughly what you are looking for. If you have to access the site via the SQE main page, try here and then go the left side bar and click on Sunshine on Our schools. I do believe you have to first read their restrictions.


  11. Under the Conservatives and thanks to a lengthy review by the then EIC the MOE website broke down for the public the amount of each board’s profile including finances and those wonderful Variance Reports that showed just how boards used their allocations. It was possible to see board-by-board breakdowns of just what tax dollars were buying then. When McGuinty took office the school profiles remained but without the financial information and cost per student.

    I will visit the link that you offered Dr. Crux.


  12. In 2008-2009 Ontario’s education funding totalled $19 100 000 000. Fulltime student enrolment in Ontario (K-12) in 2008-2009 was 2 070 736. Fulltime student enrolment in Ontario (9-12) was 715 296. A full time (9-12) student in Ontario is defined as a student taking 6 credits a year. The cost per Ontario fulltime student is $9223.77. The cost of a fulltime student attending VHS would be $2994.00 (6×499). However, schools do deliver hosts of programs to students that VHS can never hope to achieve (ie basketball teams). The key difference VHS offers to its ~3500 students is flexibility, which is why they come, despite the tuition.


  13. Thanks Steve. I appreciate all your research. I am going to be involved in a research study starting December 1st, organizing the field data and preparing the report, so am going to be turning off comments as of today. So, the timing of your comment was perfect.

    In fact, what I am going to do from here on in is encourage parents or educators to e-mail via my Contact Page, explaining issues that they are concerned about. I will either copy their letter, with permission, or write about the topic in general. It is moderating comments that takes up so much time. I hope I don’t lose any readers, but that is the only way I can continue to do this.

    I’d love to write more about your virtual school. So, anytime you have a press release or new information, e-mail it to me and I’ll post it. Innovation needs to be communicated far and wide.



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