The Office of Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia.

Increased enrollment has SVVA optimistic about future

Connor White, a high school junior at St. Vincent de Paul Virtual Academy, at his home in Chesapeake, dressed for Wednesday Mass, which he attends virtually with students from Peninsula Catholic High School. (Photo/Janet White)

Presents education option for military children, immunocompromised

A little more than 200 years after the founding of the Diocese of Richmond, Connor White, a 17-year-old high school junior from Chesapeake, is set to be a part of the first graduating class of its first fully-virtual school, named for the diocese’s patron saint. 

St. Vincent de Paul Virtual Academy (SVVA) is a virtual Catholic high school serving grades 8 through 12. It is administrated by the faculty and staff of Peninsula Catholic High School, Newport News, and is overseen by the Diocese of Richmond’s Office of Catholic Schools. 

“It’s fully accredited,” said Heather Whitchurch, interim principal at PCHS, “as it falls under the same accreditation process as the other Catholic high schools in the diocese.” 

The school opened for enrollment in March 2021 for the fall semester of this academic year. Its first graduating class is set to celebrate its achievements in the spring of 2023. 

SVVA is designed with flexibility in mind, Whitchurch said. Students can attend either full-time or part-time. 

“It’s a good option for students who are immunocompromised,” she said, “and for military children,” since SVVA affords them the opportunity to attend the same school for four years, despite moves, without the worries of the shifting requirements expected by new school systems or missing credits.

Whereas the eight brick-and-mortar Catholic high schools in the diocese might be out of driving distance for some students, students can attend SVVA regardless of their geographic location, whether they are out of the diocese or even out of the state. 

SVVA students engage in live, synchronous, virtual learning; they are taught by PCHS teachers and interact with PCHS students, Whitchurch said. 

“It’s for anyone looking for a Catholic education,” she said. 

Virtual class, real learning

 “It’s been a blessing to be allowed to have Connor stay at home,” said Janet White, Connor’s mother. “He’s had several doctor’s appointments that would have conflicted with his going to school.”

White attended Catholic High, Virginia Beach, for his freshman and sophomore years, his mother said, but when major jaw surgery left him unable to wear a mask for eight to 12 weeks, she began to look for online options. 

Connor is also an independent learner, she said, who is more comfortable attending school from home. 

“He clocks in with the homeroom at 7:45, and then he goes on to his first class. He sees his fellow students, he sees all his teachers, and they work with him, just like he’s sitting there in the classroom,” she said. 

His favorite subjects, White said, are history and media production. 

“In media production, we’ve worked on Adobe After Effects, we’ve done some stop-motion, and then we got to do a midterm project instead of a test,” White said. 

White said he enjoyed the chance to work on his own creative project. For other projects, he said, he collaborates through Zoom with his in-person classmates to make video shorts. 

“We had to do a group project where we had to fake a ‘rock, paper, scissors’ contest. It was so we could learn WeVideo; that was the application we had to use,” he said.

For another video project, White and his in-class partner cut the scenes so that it looked as if they were speaking to one another on the phone, explained Mike Pilola, who teaches English and media production at PCHS and SVVA.

“We plan the lessons specifically so that students at home will be equally engaged,” Pilola said. 

“In fact, one of my most engaged students is actually an SVVA student,” he said. “Connor is a very talented movie maker.”

“It’s been good,” White said, “everyone is nice.” 

Practice makes perfect

Peninsula Catholic High School began experimenting with online teaching in 2016, with the aim of coping with inclement weather. 

“We had just become a one-to-one school, with each student given their own laptops,” Pilola said, “when we had a year with a lot of snow days. While everyone else was making up days in the summer and on Saturdays, we were all caught up.” 

When schools closed for the pandemic in March 2020, PCHS teachers already had the training — and the technology and resources in place — to go virtual. 

“It was March 13 when everyone was sent home,” Whitchurch said, “and we were up and running by Monday.”

“Because we’ve been doing online education for a while now,” she said, “our teachers have had a lot of experience with engaging students. If they are doing group work, for example, the teachers create break-out rooms so online students are pulled into the mix and feel as if they are a part of the classroom.”  

Pilola said SVVA teachers also make use of Nearpod, an app that allows teachers to manage students’ screens so that all students —those in the classroom and online — view presentations simultaneously. 

There are interactive quizzes, polls to gauge students’ responses, and games that serve as check-in points, he said, “making sure that everyone stays on track.”

Four students are enrolled in SVVA for the upcoming year, Whitchurch said. There are hopes that the school might expand and eventually become independent of PCHS, with its own teachers and staff. 

“We’re excited to bring St. Vincent de Paul into the future,” she said.

‘Catholic connection’

“I wanted Connor to stay with the same curriculum,” Janet White said. “Everything he did at Catholic High transferred in, and he attends Mass, virtually, every Wednesday. He keeps that Catholic connection and the stewardship that goes with it. It’s been a godsend.”

Like PCHS students, SVVA students must also fulfill a service hours requirement. 

For his volunteer hours, White said, he served stew at the Shamrock Marathon at the Oceanfront to all the runners. He also plans to attend a retreat this spring, he said, one of two that SVVA offers each academic year, where he will meet his PCHS student counterparts in person. 

He enjoys being a part of something new, White said. 

“I like being at home, while doing school work,” he said. “I’d recommend it.” 

“And another fun part is he gets to wear shorts,” Janet White said. 

“That’s true,” he agreed with a quiet laugh.