THORNDIKE, Maine — Jack Wheeler needs to pass just two more courses before he receives his high school diploma.
But the 18-year-old, who moved from Belfast to Knox to live with his fiancee and their baby, won’t be taking his government and literature courses in a regular classroom. Instead, as he juggles work at an area McDonald’s, child care and school, he will use an avatar to navigate through a virtual classroom while achieving those credits.
Wheeler is among the most recent adult education students in RSU 3 to visit the “virtual world,” as students and staff affectionately call the western Waldo County district’s relatively new Virtual Learning Center.
“It’s interesting,” he said this week of the program. “You can get onto the Internet and open a chat with anybody who’s in there.”
Patricia Hughes, adult education director for the school district, said that the virtual world so far has been a big success. Officials created it just over a year ago in response to a state audit of the district’s family literacy program, which serves students in the towns of Brooks, Freedom, Jackson, Knox, Liberty, Monroe, Montville, Thorndike, Troy, Unity and Waldo.
“We’re trying to break the cycle of illiteracy and poverty,” she said.
With 11 towns spread over 440 square miles, the Students and Parents in Cooperative Education program didn’t ask students to come to a central place for classes and community. Instead, teachers went to the students’ own homes, where they provided family literacy services such as adult and early childhood instruction.
The district has a big need for this kind of program, Hughes said. A quarter of residents 25 and older don’t have a high school diploma, and 79 percent of its students qualify for free and reduced lunches, a marker of poverty.
“Our students told us that they love the program, but they felt disconnected from the world at large and from each other,” Hughes said. “The state director at the time said, ‘Pat, you need to fix that problem.’ I said, ‘OK, how am I going to possibly alleviate rural isolation?’ Because that’s what we’re talking about.”
That is when district staff had a brainstorm. Instead of having students come together in a real center, why not use technology to create a virtual center that might have a similar positive effect?
“They ended up creating the virtual world,” Hughes said. “Every avatar in there is a real person. They’re able to talk to each other. It’s very different from distance learning. They can feel connected to us and to other students in the center.”
When the virtual world went live in September 2010, it had just one “level,” which was a dead ringer for Mount View High School. Students can use their avatar to socialize with others and then use them to walk into virtual classrooms, where they sit at a computer terminal and begin their actual lessons in classes such as biology, English and math. Real teachers can pop in and out of the world, checking in on the students and their progress.
“They’re very excited to talk to other people,” Hughes said of the students. “This is what our students wanted — a very customized, human touch. They respond to it very well.”
In order to get the credit for their school efforts, students need to demonstrate proficiency in the subject, not just log hours in the world.
“I think it’s a really helpful thing,” Wheeler said of the family literacy program and its virtual component. “It’s for people who need it, who can’t get their diploma, who have left high school for this reason and that reason. I think it’s a good way to get them back in school, to finish their schooling, to continue their lives, to get a better job than a pre-high school job.”
Toward that end, the program has expanded. Now, RSU 3 is collaborating with Kennebec Valley Community College, where students can take English and math classes with college professors as well as use their avatars to sign up for financial aid.
The Maine Department of Labor recently encouraged the school district to teach students more job skills such as how to interview and how to write a resume. So, Hughes said, they have added another level to the virtual world, this one called the Department of Labor.
“We want our families to be self-sufficient in the 21st century, and that’s really hard,” she said.
So far, about 75 percent of the participants in the program have been women.
Teacher Beth Lurie, who travels to students’ homes to teach about literacy, said that the virtual world can open up real worlds for participants.
“We have a young mom who has no license. She’s a stay-at-home mom,” Lurie said. “This is nice for her. She can go in there and not be so lonely. It’s really doing its job of breaking the isolation.”
Sometimes students can be surprised by visitors to the virtual world, Hughes said. Earlier this fall, the family literacy program received a $25,000 grant from the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. The former first lady’s secretary has been a visitor, as has Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida.
School districts from all over the country, and especially other rural, remote places such as in Alaska, have contacted her to find out more about the family literacy program and the virtual world. She also has learned a lot from programs in other countries such as Sweden, Norway and South Africa.
“Rural isolation is a problem all over the world,” she said.
David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education, said that it is a “great thing” that RSU 3 officials are doing.
“Any way you can use technology to engage students, where you can remove the confinements of time and space, you have a greater ability to engage students and give them access to education,” he said Friday.