It's third period at Wiregrass Ranch High School, time for freshman Catharina Chipman to take Spanish 2. While other Spanish 2 students file into a classroom with a teacher, Catharina settles into a seat at a computer in the school's learning lab, logs in and begins reviewing her lessons online. This day, she's learning about things to say on a cruise.
"They put you in a theme," she explains, as she scrolls down the page. "I am on a ship. I just got a hotel room on the ship."
Though she's inside Wiregrass Ranch High, just a few steps from the Spanish 2 classroom, Catharina is taking her course through Pasco eSchool, which offers virtual courses students can take anywhere, anytime. The reason?
Florida's class size rules.
"We were full and couldn't get another kid into the class," principal Ray Bonti said.
Unlike last year, when Florida schools could exceed voter-mandated student-teacher ratios so long as they met the cap as a schoolwide average, this year the rules count classroom by classroom. For high schools, that means no core curriculum course — and there are about 500 different kinds of them statewide — can go over 25 students.
To accommodate the extras, schools have split classes, hired more teachers, changed schedules. For many students, that has worked. But not for everyone.
So they've offered some students the choice of taking the course online with a certified district teacher. Through Tuesday, Wiregrass Ranch had bumped 76 students from the classroom to the Internet because of class size rules. More students were registering Wednesday morning, and it appeared they would be taking at least one online course directly related to keeping classes at 25-to-1.
A similar scenario is playing out, though on a smaller scale, at high schools all over Pasco County. And in many ways this should be expected.
During the session last spring, Florida lawmakers talked about adding a requirement that all high school students take at least one online course in order to earn a diploma. Concerns over meeting class size was one of the driving factors.
Back when the class-size amendment passed, in fact, state leaders made clear that they expected school districts to provide multiple paths toward complying with the limits, with ideas including co-teaching, varied scheduling and alternative courses such as online.
With the 2010-11 official student count just a month away, and penalties of about $3,000 per student over in the offing, schools across Florida are taking heed.
"We want to provide as many options as possible for kids," said Bonti, whose school was fully compliant with the class-size caps two weeks into the new academic year.
Catharina welcomed the opportunity to take Spanish 2 virtually rather than having to wait another year to get it in. She said the course requires her to manage her time and keep on top of the assignments.
"It's a little bit more independent. But you have 24-7 learning. And there is a teacher there to help you," she said, noting that the teacher is available online, on the phone and even in person if needed. "I am very glad I chose the online route."
She's not alone in that view.
Andrew Helms, a Gulf High School junior, expressed his enthusiasm at the offer of taking World History through the eSchool when his school had no classroom seats available for him. Gulf High has nine courses that have one or no seats available, principal Steve Knobl said.
"It's like college at home," said Andrew, who plans to take the course in the evenings and use his open class period to complete other school assignments. "I like working on computers."
The 26th kid
Wiregrass Ranch sophomores Ryan Duran and Luis Mena ended up taking World History online after they decided the Advanced Placement version of the course was too tough, and the school had no more spaces available for the honors-level course.
Ryan agreed that learning online is "pretty cool." The two sat next to each other in the learning lab studying unification and nationalism, and said they liked that they could collaborate, though Luis quickly added, "We can't cheat."
Still, they had some lingering concerns about having to take a course online.
"On occasion I would like to be in the classroom so I can ask the teacher for help," Luis said.
"It would probably be better if they could fit everyone in the classroom," Ryan added, saying he didn't see much problem with having 27 kids in a class rather than 25.
Catharina was more direct in her disdain for the class size amendment.
"I do not like the class-size rule at all, whatsoever," she said.
She criticized the constant movement of students in and out of classrooms as more people enrolled, saying it disrupted learning. "It had a good purpose, but it did not work out."
Not so, though, for World History teacher Constance Hines, whose class of 25 sprawled across the floor of the commons just outside the learning lab on Wednesday morning. They worked on posters for a research project on global issues in context, things such as the Mexican drug war and blood diamonds.
"Class size has meant so much," Hines said. "I can do projects like this. With 30 or 35 it would have been very difficult."
She said she has more time for biweekly conferences with each of her students, where they discuss their progress. That in turn gives her more personal connections to the teens, who respond better to her in class.
If some students are willing to take classes online in order to make sure the other "old school" courses are like this, she suggested, it's worth it.
And unless Florida voters relax the class size rules in November, the numbers of students forced to virtual schooling likely will grow.
"We have to make sure," Bonti said, "there isn't a 26th kid in a class."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.