Distance learning interest still strong, says principal

Even though enrollment at FVDES has declined, principal Dave Manuel says Chilliwack school district shouldn't worry.

In a time when distributed learning schools should be growing in student enrollment, they’re not.

But according to David Manuel, principal of Fraser Valley Distance Education, alarm bells should not yet be rung.

Earlier this week, while preparing for a presentation at Tuesday’s board of education meeting, Manuel expected to be grilled on the school’s enrollment, which, last month, was reported to trustees as declining.

At the Jan. 21 board meeting, the school was highlighted as having experienced enrollment decline for the past two to three years, despite continuing to be the second largest distance learning (DL) school in the province.

This year, the district is projecting 814 full-time equivalent students – down 87 students from last year.

“All DL schools have slowed down [with enrollment],” said Manuel.

For several reasons.

In 2006, when the B.C. Education Ministry changed policy to allow high school students to cross enroll, taking courses at both brick-and-mortar schools and DL schools, DL enrollment skyrocketed across the province.

“The numbers went massive,” said Manuel.

But in 2010, changes were made.

Students enrolled in DL schools are now required to complete five per cent of their course before the school can claim them and receive ministry funding for them. Previously, DL schools were able to claim students as soon as they registered for a course.

At FVDES, students have one full year to complete a course.

“At any given time I have about 100 or close to 200 full-time equivalents sitting there, waiting to get active,” said Manuel.

“We need to figure out how to get them going.”

In 2011, the Ministry of Education also stopped funding DL support blocks. Previously, high schools received funding for providing designated classrooms, with teacher supervision, where students could work on DL courses.

“That was the biggest one where we saw decline,” said Manuel. “When the ministry took that away, it made it harder for those kids to take the regular school program and take our program. It had a huge impact on enrollment.”

Last year, the government also limited course availability for adult students. For years, graduated adults have been able to take any DL course for free with funding provided by the ministry. But last year, that was changed to only essentials – English, math, science, etc.

“That was another big reduction,” said Manuel.

The changes conflict with the ministry’s push for 21st Century Learning, and an education model that features K-12 blended learning where students can take courses at both brick-and-mortar and DL schools.

But there are also positive changes on the horizon, said Manuel.

This year, the ministry changed policy to allow Grade 8 and 9 students to now access DL courses while enrolled in regular middle school.

“We’ve got two more grade levels now – that’s a big positive,” said Manuel.

“I think the Grade 8 and 9 change is going to have an interesting effect. I don’t know if it will reach that high again [from a few years ago], but it will have an impact.”

There’s also references for K-12 cross enrollment in the school act, which Manuel believes could give DL schools even more grades to work with in the future.

“DL is alive and well,” he said.