Students in the Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES are one step closer to having better access to virtual Advanced Placement courses.

A group of four area BOCES, including the Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES, are tentative grant recipients of $1.3 million to aid in forming infrastructure and curriculum for virtual AP courses.

"This is a huge direction for schools," said Bill Speck, superintendent of the Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES. "(Virtual courses) are efficient, there's cost savings, they can be enriching."

Many factors can make access to AP courses a challenge for students, such as a student's schedule or the lack of certain courses at a student's school.

Another issue is the lack of reliable high-speed internet access in sections of Cayuga County; even if a student had access to a virtual AP course, the internet connection at home wouldn't be fast enough or reliable enough to do the program effectively, Speck said.

That part of the challenge is being addressed by a grant application for funding that would connect southern Cayuga County and northern Tompkins County to high-speed internet. The grant requires a local match in funds, Speck said.

The grant the four BOCES will get, once they finish some paperwork, originates from $17.3 million in federal Race to the Top funding. The four BOCES that joined together to apply for part of those funds are Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES, Oswego BOCES, Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES and Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga BOCES.

The $1.3 million grant will be used by the four-BOCES consortium, known as the Joint Management Team, to fund a virtual AP program for 18 months, Speck said.

Currently, Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES offers online courses, and some of them are AP courses, said Margaret Colella, BOCES' e-learning specialist. The BOCES is in the second year of an online course pilot program.

Component school districts must pay for online courses their students take, but for the 18 months the grant money is spent on the virtual AP courses project, courses included in the project will be covered by the grant money.

Students identified as good candidates for the courses will likely be low-income students from school districts who have a significant population of students eligible for free and reduced lunches, an indicator of poverty.

As part of the grant, the Joint Management Team must accomplish several goals, including creating online AP courses in art history and statistics in 2013-14 and four more courses in 2014-15, Speck said.

Other goals of the team are implementing training to prepare teachers for working in a virtual learning environment and developing an infrastructure among the four BOCES so that schools can continue to offer the virtual AP courses when the grant runs dry.

"The grant builds infrastructure for down the line," Speck said.

Speck said the future of virtual courses will likely extend beyond AP courses to electives.

"We are building around the core requirements to provide opportunities in elective areas," he said.

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Staff writer Kelly Voll can be reached at 282-2239 or kelly.voll@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter at CitizenVoll.