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New Hernando graduates trade classes for clicks

Samantha Garrity is one of seven students to graduate this year with the Hernando School District’s new eSchool diploma. Garrity never attended classes at a traditional high school.

TONY MARRERO | Times

Samantha Garrity is one of seven students to graduate this year with the Hernando School District’s new eSchool diploma. Garrity never attended classes at a traditional high school.

BROOKSVILLE — On warm, sunny days, Samantha Garrity's school clothes were bathing suits.

When Rebekah Morrow sat down for class, she had pet rabbit, Boo Boo Bunny, by her side and chihuahua, Lacy Mae, in her lap.

As their fellow Hernando students rode buses and drove cars to brick-and-mortar high schools, Garrity and Morrow were among a handful who stayed home to complete coursework as enrollees in the district's eSchool program

They are among the first seven seniors to receive a high school diploma through the program, a franchise of Florida Virtual School. The Web-centric curriculum is considered Hernando's 24th school.

Four students graduated last month about the same time as their peers in traditional schools. Garrity and another are taking extended courses that finish this month.

More than 1,200 students took at least one eSchool class this year, most of them supplementing coursework at one of the district's five high schools, said Melody Whitaker, the district's eSchool guidance counselor.

But some students took only online courses. Morrow, for example, joined the program in her senior year, while Garrity took online courses all four years.

The program, students say, rewards self-discipline and focus with a level of flexibility and freedom that their peers in traditional schools can only imagine.

"It's definitely not how I would have expected my senior year to go a couple of years ago, but it was still a good experience," Morrow said.

• • •

Hernando students in grades 6-12 have been taking classes through Florida Virtual School since 1999. There is a separate program for students in kindergarten through fifth grade called Kids Connection, which is also under the FVS umbrella.

The Hernando School Board approved the eSchool franchise last year. There are two big advantages: The franchise is considered a separate school that can award its own diploma, and the full-time enrollment dollars from the state stay with the district.

Until now, Hernando students who only took courses online were considered home-schooled, took the GED test and earned a high school diploma.

The shift to a completely online school took some getting used to for Whitaker, a veteran guidance counselor who has worked in Springstead and Hernando high schools.

"But I think children are different from when I went to high school, and the online experience is something they like," she said.

The program attracts students from diverse backgrounds, but they tend to have traits in common, Whitaker said. They are comfortable working independently and at their own pace, and they are disciplined.

Morrow moved to Hernando County in 2004 at the end of her fifth-grade year, attending local schools until the eighth grade, when she transferred to a private school in New Port Richey. In her freshman year, she attended a boarding school in Apopka.

As a sophomore, she walked from her Spring Hill home to Springstead High. The controlled chaos of a massive public high school just didn't feel right, she said.

So it was back to the Apopka boarding school for junior year. Then the tuition there went up and her mother, Tricia, couldn't afford to send her back for her senior year.

Rebekah Morrow had taken some FVS classes in the past and was thrilled to find out she could earn a diploma by taking all online courses her senior year. She took classes in American government, economics, precalculus and health and wellness, among others.

Students move through the online coursework and then take timed quizzes and exams. The courses come with pace guides to help students mark their progress.

Each week, Morrow would gather all her assignments and divide them by the days of the week so she knew about how much work to do each day on her Dell laptop. She worked around her schedule as a server at a New Port Richey restaurant.

"It's definitely harder to make sure you get your work done, but if you're willing to put forth the effort and do the work diligently, it's a great school to go to," Morrow said.

Some eSchool teachers are local; most are throughout the state. Students get time with instructors through e-mail, online chats, phone conversations and, in some cases, one-on-one, in-person tutoring. Instructors check in with parents at least once a month.

"I feel like you get more help in virtual school" than traditional classrooms, Morrow said.

Tricia Morrow felt apprehensive at first, wanting to believe her daughter was disciplined enough to make it work but still unsure. She excelled.

"I'm very proud of her," Tricia said. "She did more than I expected of her."

It takes some sacrifice, though. Rebekah Morrow shut down her Facebook account to avoid the time-sucking temptation.

"People said, 'What happened to you?' " she recalled. "I said I was doing my homework."

• • •

For Garrity, the decision to spend her high school years online was an easy one and the eSchool diploma option came at the perfect time.

Born in Baltimore and raised in the Maryland suburbs, she attended traditional schools until the eighth grade, when her family bought property in Hernando Beach and began to travel back and forth. She started taking virtual courses as a freshman.

It wasn't a hard decision to leave public school, said Garrity, who watched many of her friends in Maryland change when they got to high school.

"A lot of good kids, strong students who knew where they were going in life and just completely forgot," Garrity said. "It was all about socializing."

The alternative wasn't easy, though. Doing schoolwork while lounging in her bathing suit on the deck sounds nice, but it was far from vacation.

"You have to be very focused," she said. "Sometimes I would just get tired of reading on the computer."

Calculus was especially difficult for Garrity, but her teacher pointed her to recorded lessons on the Web that walk students through sample problems.

Students who take only online courses are still eligible for sports and activities in their zoned high schools. Garrity found friends through the 4-H Club in Brooksville.

Still, it was tough to watch friends primp for traditional school events. "I'd miss it and then once my friends stopped talking about prom, I'd forget about it again," she said.

Morrow and Garrity both qualify for the state's Bright Futures scholarship. Both animal lovers, they dream of jobs in veterinary medicine and plan to attend Pasco-Hernando Community College before transferring to a four-year university.

They missed the pomp and circumstance of walking across the stage to pick up their diploma, but have no regrets.

"I may not be walking for graduation, but I'm graduating with a higher (grade-point average) than I would have," Morrow said. "It is sad, but it's just something you have to give up to do this."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

New Hernando graduates trade classes for clicks 07/05/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 5, 2011 8:31pm]
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