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Online Learning Gains Popularity

“Florida virtual school growing”
by Rob Shaw
Tampa Tribune
October 15, 2012

When she taught in public schools, Jill Rogier always worried about the kids who slipped through the cracks — those who were bored because they were advanced or who struggled because they felt like they were left behind.

Now in her fifth year with Florida Virtual School, Rogier said she doesn’t have to worry about that anymore.

“If you don’t understand fractions, you don’t move on to equations with fractions,” she said. “You decide when you are ready. Your pace is your pace.”

More students apparently are learning the value of the way of life in the school without walls. The virtual school that offers more than 120 free online classes had about 25,000 more students at the end of the last school year than it did the year before.

That annual jump seems to be consistent the last several years — quite a leap from the modest 77 students enrolled in its debut 15 years ago. The school had about 148,000 students statewide at the end of the last school year, with more than 13,000 of those coming from Hillsborough County, the third highest total in Florida.

The numbers in Florida are part of a growing trend nationwide, as states try to do more with fewer education dollars.

The state saves nearly $2,200 per student who is enrolled in virtual school as opposed to the brick-and-mortar type, said Tania Clow, spokeswoman for the Florida Virtual School. A student attending a district school in Florida costs the state an average of $7,000, while one taking classes online costs the state $4,800.

To be sure, virtual schools are not without critics, who complain they deprive traditional school districts of valuable tax dollars and insulate students from socialization with their peers.

Those concerns are misplaced, supporters say.

“I can tell you I see monumental growth as parents are finding out they can tailor their child’s education to meet their needs,” said Celeste Sanchez, who works as a virtual school liaison with schools in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties. “Parents love that they can pick and choose how their education is going to turn out.”

Sanchez speaks with firsthand knowledge from a parent’s perspective as well.

“I’ve seen what it can do,” she said. “I’ve lived what it can do.”

Two of her daughters took virtual school classes, which allowed them to graduate from Riverview High School early and begin college ahead of classmates.

The Florida Virtual School operates like its own public school district, only without school buildings. A board of directors is appointed by the governor to oversee the school.

Each teacher is responsible for as many as 25 students per class. With six class periods per day, that means teachers may have as many as 150 students they are teaching.

Seven days a week, 12 hours a day, teachers talk to students on the phone and exchange texts and instant messages with them in subjects ranging from art history to Chinese to driver’s education. They also Skype with them and do classroom lessons on camera from their home.

Just because they are learning from home doesn’t mean they are exempt from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test or other state-mandated exams. Full-time virtual students must take the FCAT and other end-of-course assessments for classes such as algebra, biology and geometry.

Hillsborough County School District officials occasionally will refer students to the state’s virtual school if class-size limitations keep a student from enrolling in a class, officials say.

Once there, virtual teachers scattered across the state are willing to work as long as it takes with their students.

“If they struggle, that’s OK,” said Rogier, who also works as a mentor to some of the school’s 1,500 other virtual teachers. “Now there is no judgment. We can do it over and over.”

Sanchez likes that kids don’t have to be hesitant to raise their hand in a crowded classroom and ask a question they fear others will think is stupid.

“They begin to lose that fear of school,” she said. “It’s just amazing.”

The school is popular with students who want to get ahead in their classes, such as Sanchez’s daughters.

It also comes in handy for students who are trying to become professional singers, actors or athletes and have to dedicate several hours a day to those pursuits.

It could be a home-schooled student, or someone who has medical reasons and can’t be in a regular classroom.

Whatever the reason, the numbers continue to grow.

“I think it’s increased awareness that the choice is there and the offering is there,” said Clow, the spokeswoman for the virtual school.

Because of the growth, the school is constantly looking for more teachers to hire.

There currently is a need for about 60 new teachers, with the greatest need coming in foreign language and business courses.

“We are growing and we have students who want to enroll in classes,” Clow said. “We don’t want to inundate our teachers and change that ratio we strive for.”

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