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Florida's virtual school thrives

At one of Florida's largest public schools, students take classes in English literature, Spanish and calculus. They join clubs, enter science fairs and talk one on one with their teachers.

But no one complains about mystery meat from the school cafeteria, no one ever gets asked to — or snubbed at — a school dance, and there is no football team to cheer for.

A decade after its founding, the Florida Virtual School has become a quiet force in the state's education system. It's an Internet-based school that offers free, accredited classes for middle school and high school students in Florida. More than 54,000 students took courses last year, and it's growing.

"They are the largest state-led virtual school program based in the United States,'' said Susan Patrick, president of the North American Council for Online Learning. "I think that they have one of the most innovative education solutions for how we can better serve students."

Janice Barnard, whose 17-year-old daughter is taking Virtual School classes in a program affiliated with Tampa's Blake High School, says, "It's not for everyone. You must have a self-motivated child, somebody who wants to learn, who wants to achieve."

But classes by computer do make sense for thousands of students whose regular schools don't offer Chinese or advanced placement calculus, for students who want to work faster or slower, for students who want more free time to take electives in their regular schools, and for those who would rather not endure physical education in their sweaty school gyms.

Yes, students are even taking P.E. over the Internet and getting credit for it.

• • •

Most of the Virtual School's students already are enrolled in regular middle and high schools and use the online courses as supplements. But some are homeschooled students who use virtual classes as a small or large part of their curriculum.

The school began in 1997 as a small program between the Alachua and Orange county school districts, but it got a big boost when the Florida Legislature poured in funding to take it statewide. In an unusual arrangement, the Virtual School is now its own school district, with a $62.8-million annual budget and no home county.

The school's headquarters is an Orlando office building where administrators, customer service staff and technical workers work. But in a sense, it's really based in the homes of its 400 full-time and 166 part-time teachers, because they mostly work from home.

The school receives $540 in state money each time a student successfully completes a half-credit course. It also teaches students from other states with either parents or home school districts picking up the cost.

When a student signs up for a class, the student and parents get an introductory phone call from the teacher. Students follow detailed lesson plans. They also speak with the teacher by phone at least once a month, and often more. They also communicate by e-mail.

"Even when I was miles and miles away in Bolivia, it was still a very close relationship with them,'' said Ariana Pybus, 18, a senior at Sickles High School in northwest Hillsborough County, who has taken classes through the Virtual School.

As the child of a naval officer, Ariana has moved frequently. She says Virtual School classes helped her fulfill her Florida education requirements and taught her a lot about working independently.

"Obviously in a classroom you have more interactions with everyone else and you do group projects and stuff like that," said Ariana, who was recently accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy. "The good thing about Florida Virtual School is you learn to be independent and responsible for your own work."

• • •

When April O'Bryan first considered teaching through Florida Virtual School, she wondered, "Hmm, how's that going to work? How am I going to grade papers for students I don't even know?"

But now, O'Bryan says, she lets her English students call her as late as 9 p.m. and sometimes as early as 6 a.m.

She thinks this actually helps students who need extra attention. When she taught in traditional classrooms in Osceola and Seminole counties, "a lot of my kids who really, really needed extra help weren't able to stay after school & when that bell rang that was it, that's all the time I had with them."

But now she can tailor her lesson plan to a single student. If that student needs an extra week to prepare for a test, she can give it to him or her.

"If a student is not ready to take the test, then that student does not take the test,'' said Julie Young, president and chief executive of the school. "By the time that they take a test with us, they should know the material. It's a very different approach."

• • •

Taking classes outside of classrooms does require some adjustments. Art students send drawings to teachers by mail or create them on computers. Some students enter "discussions" in virtual classes that are similar to chat rooms. Language students can click on words to hear the pronunciation. Science students do experiments in their kitchens with household items. Or, for more explosive demonstrations, they have been known to click on virtual test tubes.

For online physical education classes, students keep logs of their regular physical activity, such as running or swimming. A parent, coach or other adult must certify their records.

The school also has tried to create extracurricular activities by forming online clubs and other programs, such as science fairs with projects posted on the school Web site.

The system works for Kayla Hernandez, 17, of Tampa.

"I just did not like regular high school," she said, because she felt her classes moved too slowly.

Now she is taking all of her classes through the Virtual School and says she has managed to maintain a social life, too. "I have all of my friends' numbers. We hang out on weekends."

Barnard, her mother, said, "I wish they'd had it in my time."

Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8232.

Fast facts

Virtual School

•Offers more than 90 online high school and middle school courses, including advanced placement courses.

•54,100 students took 113,900 half-credit courses in 2006-07. This year, the number of students is expected to top 80,000.

•Number of out-of-state students who took courses in 2006-07: 1,040.

•All courses are taught by Florida certified teachers.

•For more information:
flvs.net

•For demonstrations:
flvs.net/products_services/p_s_course_demos.php

Florida's virtual school thrives 04/06/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 9, 2008 5:37pm]

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