LAND O'LAKES — Pasco's eSchool, the virtual school program that provides computer courses that students can take at their own pace, is proving more popular than officials expected.
In launching the online K-12 venture this fall, Pasco school district officials projected that students would enroll in 650 courses all year.
Already, the program has attracted more than 1,000 course enrollments in grades 6-12. More than 800 requests are pending for the second semester before official registration begins, administrator JoAnne Glenn told the School Board on Tuesday.
"We were hoping to open slowly," Glenn said. "We opened at an amazing pace."
Interest was so strong that the eSchool had to hire nine teachers beyond the original 28 it selected to instruct the virtual courses.
Much of the interest has come from high school students who want to split their time between regular and online classes. Three schools — Schwettman Education Center, Irvin Education Center and Mitchell High — have made their campus computer labs available for students to take the courses without going home.
At the education centers, that has allowed students to make up credits needed to get back on track for an on-time high school graduation, Glenn said. At Mitchell, it has given students the opportunity to take advanced Spanish and algebra classes that they otherwise could not access.
"Virtual provides for students to accelerate their learning," Glenn explained.
She expected other schools to look into making space available for students to take online courses. One of the key concerns remains supervision.
Some schools might not be able to sacrifice an employee to monitor the computer lab, especially in lean financial times. But if enough students show interest, that might justify the expense.
Board member Kathryn Starkey asked if students in lower grades can take virtual courses in upper levels.
The eSchool doesn't offer that option currently, Glenn said, but it is on the table for consideration. Virtual schooling is supposed to let students work at their own pace and their own level, she noted, so it would make sense.
"That has been one of the policy and procedural issues we have been working on behind the scenes," Glenn said. "We have to go slowly. … (But) we do want to make sure we have courses available for the students who are ready."
District officials did not begin full planning for the eSchool until the late spring. They had lobbied Florida lawmakers to back off their mandate that every county have an independent online school for K-8 students, arguing the money could be spent better.
Instead, the Legislature expanded the mandate to include all grade levels. Pasco didn't even have its online instructors hired until August.
Now it's working on more of the fine points, such as marketing and cross-level course enrollment. The school is forming an advisory council to help guide its path.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.