For the first time, students at two rural Charleston County schools are live-streaming an Advanced Placement course this year in a virtual partnership that aims to expand their opportunities.

Under Charleston County's distance learning pilot program, nine students at Baptist Hill Middle/High and St. John's High are taking an AP Human Geography course taught by Jason Brisini, an accomplished AP teacher who works on the opposite end of the county at Wando High. The program could expand to include other courses and schools in coming years.

Wando, which is the state's largest high school, offers a wide range of courses for college credit through its AP Academy program. Smaller schools like Baptist Hill and St. John's often do not have enough teachers to provide many courses beyond the basic requirements for graduation.

Last school year, for example, 1,394 Wando students took an AP exam, compared with 23 students at Baptist Hill and one student at St. John's, according to state report card data.

Now, every morning at 7:30 a.m., Brisini joins his students on a conference call. A live-stream video of the teacher greets the students on a Promethean flat-screen board in their classroom, and they communicate back via Chromebooks and a Cisco teleconferencing camera that zooms in on them as they speak.

Just like in a traditional classroom, Brisini calls on students and invites questions. 

"It’s something near and dear to my heart. I believe in equity, and I feel that we really need to spread the wealth," Brisini said at a Feb. 11 school board committee meeting where he explained the purpose of the program.

AP Human Geography teleconferences

Baptist Hill High School 9th graders laugh as they watch and listen as Wando High School teacher Jason Brisini as he teaches AP Human Geography Tuesday, February 19, 2019. This is the first year students at Baptist Hill and St. John's High School have taken the course thanks to a new virtual classroom program. Brisini teleconferences with them every morning, joining them via live video stream to give lectures and lead group projects. Brad Nettles/Staff

Brisini said he teaches the virtual course exactly the same way he teaches his in-person classes at Wando. To prove it, he recently had his students from St. John's and Baptist Hill take a field trip to sit in class with Wando students.

"Sitting in here and going over to his school — it was exactly the same experience," said Breyon Dent, 14, a Baptist Hill freshman.

In Brisini's class, students are expected to watch some video lessons and complete assignments on their own time. Each student is also assigned a fictional country at the start of the school year. As they learn new concepts, they have to create plans for the development, economy and government of their countries.

Breyon's country is "Oliveston," a Mediterranean island nation off the coast of Italy. He said he has enjoyed the challenge of the class, and his mother has encouraged him to take more AP courses to save money on college tuition later.

Breyon's classmate Luis Toledano Garcia said an assistant principal told him two years ago that there would be "something special" for students who make good grades in middle school.

"I was surprised to find out I had an AP class," Luis said. "I knew it was going to be a chance for me to get into college easier."

The first few months were stressful, Luis said. But he pressed on.

AP Human Geography teleconferences

Baptist Hill High School 9th grader Breyon Dent talks about his AP Human Geography taught by Wando High School teacher Jason Brisini Tuesday, February 19, 2019. This is the first year students at Baptist Hill and St. John's High School have taken the course thanks to a new virtual classroom program. Brisini teleconferences with them every morning, joining them via live video stream to give lectures and lead group projects. Brad Nettles/Staff

"I kept working and working, and a few months in, I was starting to get used to the hard work," Luis said. "As of today, I would say it's easier for me to work on it. I'm used to all the hard work, the quizzes, the unit tests. It's getting better."

Brisini has seen a change taking place, as well. On the first test of the year, he said, Wando students outperformed his virtual students by an average of 15 points. On the most recent test, the gap had narrowed to just two points.

"They can do it. I promise you they can do it," Brisini told the school board on Feb. 11. "Anyone in this district can. The difference is you have to have someone who grabs a hold of that class, they make it their own, and they make sure that these kids are getting the best education possible."

This year's distance learning pilot program cost the district about $122,000, according to spokesman Andy Pruitt. The funding mostly came from federal grants and covered new technology, a stipend for Brisini, and transportation costs so that Brisini could visit the classes in person.

Some members of the Charleston County School Board expressed an interest in expanding the program after hearing a presentation at their February committee meeting.

"I'd like to quadruple this in your school. Can you handle that?" board member Cindy Bohn Coats asked Baptist Hill Principal Vanessa Brown.

"Yes ma'am," Brown replied.

"I’m grateful for Dr. Brisini. He has just turned on a lightbulb for these young people," Brown added.

LaShawna Rivers, online coordinator for the district, said she hopes to expand the distance learning program in the 2019-20 school year, pending the school board's development of the budget.

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.