TRINITY — During leadership training, Tracie Beerman heard a lot of talk about pushing students into the 21st century with global education.
When she returned to Seven Springs Middle School, where she's an assistant principal, Beerman looked to apply what she had learned.
"I wanted to create new opportunities for kids to get experiences in technology, and I wanted to incorporate Mandarin Chinese," she said.
The school piloted the lessons during 2010-11, using a contracted online service to provide the teacher. Problems cropped up, though, including a revolving door of instructors.
This year, the Pasco eSchool has stepped in, hiring the county's first certified Mandarin Chinese teacher to instruct the Seven Springs Middle students, as well as any other students in the county seeking to learn the increasingly popular language.
Lin Shi, a native speaker, will work part-time for the district from Tallahassee, where she teaches at a Chinese-language elementary school. The goal, eSchool administrator JoAnne Glenn said, is to bring Shi to the district full time as demand grows.
The district needs to have about 150 students enrolled in a course to justify a full-time teacher.
Many languages don't have such numbers. In fact, the only languages that generate full-time teachers in Pasco are Spanish, French, German and American Sign Language. Of those, only Spanish is widespread.
Only two high schools have German teachers, for instance. None have Latin teachers, which are growing in demand as part of high school medical academy programs.
That's where virtual school comes in handy.
With high school students now required to take at least one online class, as well as two years of a language, the availability of niche languages through eSchool helps in key ways, said Ariana Leonard, the school district's foreign languages supervisor.
The turn to the Internet for instruction allows teachers to reach interested students all across the county, Leonard said, without forcing the children to travel to one campus for their lessons. And the district can offer more than a handful of options.
That's how Sunlake High students were able to take a third year of German instruction, and how many high schools could offer Advanced Placement French. And now, they'll have Mandarin Chinese as a choice.
"We're obviously going to support that if there is a need," she said. "We are working with eSchool to accommodate the students."
One of the key steps that must be tackled in offering online languages is assuring that students have the opportunity to interact with their teacher regularly. Reading and writing is a portion of the learning, Leonard said, but there also must be time for speaking and listening.
With Skype and other forms of interactive media, that should not be too problematic, she suggested.
But when Seven Springs Middle first introduced Chinese, troubles did arise, Glenn said. One of those was the location of the teacher in California.
"The teacher was excellent," she said. "But the students had no real-time experience because of the three-hour time zone difference."
In hiring Shi, the students will have a teacher in the same state who will also have flexibility in her schedule, making her more accessible to the middle schoolers.
"This will be better," Glenn said. "Just having someone that is committed to helping our program grow will be helpful."
Shi, who found the job through the Internet, said she was excited to begin teaching Chinese to Pasco students.
"I think that virtual school can really meet the needs of the students," she said. "They can learn any time, anywhere."
She planned to use a variety of technologies to make sure the students understand the curriculum and that they properly speak the language.
"If they really need me to meet with them face to face, I can just travel to Pasco County," said Shi, who has a master's degree in foreign language education from Florida State University.
Glenn said she hopes to see the Chinese program gain interest quickly, perhaps among the global studies programs that interact with Chinese students such as the one at Pasco Middle School. She said eSchool would expand its Chinese and other offerings as the demand arises.
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.