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Monday, September 12, 2011

In Florida Virtual Schools are on the rise

From the Orlando Sentinel

by Leslie Postal

Florida, a pioneer in the field of virtual education, is extending its digital reach this year with a new law that will push even more students to log on to learn.

It is a move some educators call worrisome, fearful it really is an effort to cut costs, not boost education, and uncertain all online offerings are the right fit for so many youngsters.

Volusia County But others say the Digital Learning Now law is precisely what Florida needs to prepare children for a technology-based future and to free them from the geographic constraints of the walled classroom.

"Online courses help level the playing field so that every student can access a world-class education," Susan Patrick, president of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, wrote in an email.

Florida is a national leader in the field, having established the Florida Virtual School in 1997, the first such state-run program in the nation, Patrick said. And the new law — which expands both part- and full-time virtual options — keeps the state at the forefront of online education, which is "growing explosively," according to the association.

The state law requires high-school students to take an online course to earn a diploma, gives bright elementary students new virtual options, expands the established Florida Virtual School and allows new virtual charter schools to open.

A review last year by the U.S. Department of Education, however, cautioned there had been "few rigorous research studies" on the effect of online education in the kindergarten-to-12th-grade arena. Previous studies had focused mostly on college students and seemed to show they did best in "blended" courses that mixed online learning with old-fashioned, "face-to-face" instruction, the report said.

A "blizzard of hype" surrounds virtual education, said Alex Molnar, a professor at the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado. But, he added, "there's simply no support in the research for the kind of frenetic policymaking" taking place.

"The research legs underneath it are spindly and weak and inconclusive," Molnar said.

The hype comes from both those who can make money off virtual education, Molnar added, and those, like former Gov. Jeb Bush, who view it as another piece in the school-choice movement.

Pros and cons

Virtual education has been touted as a cost-effective model. The Florida Virtual School says it spends about $2,500 less per student than a traditional school because it does not need to maintain buildings, run buses or keep up athletic fields.

But the Florida House estimated the new law will actually cost the state money this year — perhaps $6 million more — as some students not currently in the public-education system take part and require state funding.

Most students who participate in virtual education do so to supplement their work in traditional schools. Last year, more than 115,000 students across the state took at least one course with the Florida Virtual School.

The new law will boost those part-time enrollments because, starting with this year's ninth-graders, an online class becomes a graduation requirement.

"That is going to be significant," said Gary Marks, the administrator who oversees virtual programs for Volusia County schools.

Though many "high performers" have done well with virtual high-school courses, those classes could be tough for struggling students, he said.

"I'm sure there are going to be kids who find this is not the best way for them to be educated," said Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, the Florida House sponsor of the new law.

For that reason, the law leaves the type of course taken online up to the student, allowing electives and "core courses."

The goal is to give all students a taste of the type of course offered in college and access to classes perhaps not offered on their campuses.

"It just opens up the world," she added.

Last year, Miami-Dade County schools put nearly 7,000 high-school students in virtual classes — which they took from school computer labs — to dodge the state's strict class-size law.

"They were just warehoused," said Karen Aronowitz, president of United Teachers of Dade.

The virtual school concedes the rollout in Miami-Dade was not ideal but said, in the end, 81 percent of the students enrolled in those virtual classes successfully completed them.

But Aronowitz remains doubtful virtual education is right for so many students.

"Kids have to be kind of mature," she said. Otherwise, "students get stuck, don't know what to do" and sometimes "just stop," if they don't have a teacher to help them.

2 paths

The maturity issue may be part of why the new virtual option for elementary students has attracted few takers so far. It allows fourth- and fifth-graders who scored well on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to skip an elementary course and, instead, take a middle-school one virtually.

That option was open to about 5,700 Seminole County students, but fewer than 90 kids have signed up. Statewide enrollment is fewer than 1,000.

Deidre Sullivan's son Slade could have opted out of fourth-grade math at Woodlands Elementary in Seminole to take a sixth-grade math class online. Though initially the idea seemed "cool," she feared skipping ahead would lead to gaps in his knowledge. She also wondered how well a 9-year-old would work independently at a computer — in the school media center, perhaps — without an instructor who could immediately answer his questions or help keep him focused.

And, Sullivan said, she knew what he would miss.

"I do think he's got one of the best fourth-grade teachers around, so it seemed kind of pointless to take him out of the classroom where he'll get good instruction," she added.

Some younger students have done well with virtual learning, but they usually work at home with a parent who can keep them on task.

Nicole Wolfe, who lives in the Celebration community in Osceola County, has both her children, ages 9 and 11, enrolled full-time in the Florida Virtual School. She loves the teacher interaction via phone and email, and the flexibility it provides.

Her kids can work ahead in math, a subject in which they excel, adjust their schedule if grandparents are in town, and "if something triggers their fancy, you can stop and focus on it."

But Wolf said the setup — both children on computers in separate areas of the house — does require "a commitment from the family" because a parent must be home to help and supervise.

Virtual charters

If more families want to follow that path, they soon could have more virtual options than ever.

The state virtual school can enroll more students now, while new virtual charter schools are seeking approval for future students. Some virtual charter schools would require students to work from home, while others would provide a building where students would learn solely via computers.

About a dozen virtual charters have applied to open in Central Florida next year.

The Central Florida Virtual Charter School Board is looking to open virtual academies in most local counties.

"I thought it was cutting edge," said Mary Bennett, a retired Volusia teacher and administrator serving as chairwoman of the Virtual Charter School Board.

Bennett doesn't think online learning will work for everyone — "you have to be self-motivated; you have to be focused" — but thinks it could be a good match for many technologically savvy youngsters.

"I think it's exciting to see how it goes," she added. or 407-420-5273,0,1219804,full.story

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