Virtual Schools Expand Students' Network

MIAMI (2011-8-22) -

Starting with this year’s crop of ninth graders, every high schooler in the state must take an online class to graduate.

Not can take an online class. Must — whether they have a computer at home or not.

This is the brave new (cyber) world of public education. School begins Monday.

In this world, kids as young as kindergarten can enroll in virtual school. And physical education is an online offering.

Not everyone thinks the mandate is such a great idea, but the Legislature did.

It passed the requirement, figuring that kids are already tech savvy and that digital skills are key to success in college and in the workforce.

Plus the state saves money on online education. Florida spends 23 percent less on a student in virtual school than in a traditional one.

“Depending on your level of optimism or cynicism, you would look at Florida as either way ahead of others and trying to improve, or say there’s something underhanded and trying to undermine public schools,” said Michael Simonson, a professor of instructional technology and distance education at Nova Southeastern University.

He sees virtual education as a natural evolution that merges modern technology with learning — like when calculators came into classrooms in the ’60s and ’70s.

Among the benefits: Students access teachers and subjects not available at their brick-and-mortar school. They learn at their own pace. And they log on when and where they want.

Critics say the move drains money from school districts, limits the social experience of education and affords few benefits for students who are not highly motivated.

“I cannot think of any reason to mandate it for high school students other than saving money and/or making money for their friends’ companies that are running the systems,” said Jennifer Smith, who teaches French at Hialeah High and is active with United Teachers of Dade.

The mandate comes more than a decade into Florida’s experiment with online education. In 1997, the state created Florida Virtual School as an Internet-based public high school. Now it is a state-wide school district, offers K-12 classes and expects some 150,000 students this year.

In 2007, the group Florida TaxWatch called Florida Virtual a bargain. The school does not have to pay for physical buildings, meaning no custodians, cafeteria workers or buses. And, if a student fails an online course, the state does not pay.

“We are performance-based,” said Pam Birtolo, Florida Virtual’s chief learning officer. “I think it ensures that students are learning.”

Birtolo said they do not scrimp on instruction and they guard against cheating, with phone calls, random exams and other programs. To provide social experience, the school offers online clubs.


Cristian Hernandez starts ninth grade Monday at Dr. Michael M. Krop High. Yet he got a jump-start over the summer and is about to ace his freshman geometry class. He did online lessons and talked with his teacher on the phone or on email.

Cristian liked his class, but the 14-year-old wouldn’t recommend online class for everyone.

“Just because I find it easy doesn’t mean every other kid will. Some kids need the attention of teachers,” he said.

One virtual teacher, April Greeson, said she knows her fourth- and third-graders much better online than when she taught in a physical classroom. A few years ago, she left Broward County Public Schools to join Florida Virtual School to be on the “cutting edge of education.” On Monday, Greeson will start making welcome calls to about 50 students. Once a month, she will talk on the phone with the student and whoever is their “learning coach” at home, often a parent or grandparent. Their role with younger students is key, Greeson said.

“It’s the three of us working together,” she said.

Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said there is a risk in imposing virtual education “simply on the basis of saving money, perhaps.”

“The digital divide is going to be critical in this conversation,” Carvalho said.

Thousands of families in Miami-Dade and Broward do not have home access to a computer or the Internet. An aggressive push to virtual education could leave behind the “digital have-nots,” he said. Families whose child qualifies for a free lunch can access cheap Internet and a voucher toward a discount computer, through a recent national initiative by cable and Internet-provider Comcast.

The Miami-Dade and Broward districts are marching forward with plans to help students meet the new requirement and bridge that digital gap. This year, there will more than 27,000 ninth-graders in Dade, another 20,000 in Broward.

“To tackle something as large as every ninth-grader graduating with having an online course, we’re going to have to dig deep,” said Christopher McGuire, principal at the Broward Virtual School, an A-rated local franchise of the statewide program.

To meet the requirement, Miami-Dade and Broward students can take a class directly from Florida Virtual School or from their local district franchises About 30 schools in Miami-Dade and about 10 in Broward will house virtual learning labs.

Last year, Miami-Dade used that model of virtual learning labs to meet class-size requirements. This year, that model will likely be replicated in other districts across the state.

In the labs, students log onto a computer, work on their classes and talk with their Florida Virtual teacher by the phone or email. A facilitator is on hand to manage the lab and help with any technical trouble.

“We are still teaching,” said Gia Braynon, a counselor at C.O.P.E. Center North, a program for pregnant teens. She recently joined a training session for lab facilitators. “It’s 25 kids in a room. They still have that one-on-one attention on the subject they’re doing on the computer.”


At Hialeah Gardens High, a third of the freshman class will take virtual world history from the lab. Others will take P.E., even Latin. Principal Louis Algaze said last year online classes were an “ingenious” way to meet class size. But he’s skeptical about a mandate.

“I’d hate to put a student in a situation where they’re not going to be successful,” Algaze said.

Last year, the online reading was too difficult for some Hialeah Gardens students who were still learning English. They returned to regular class.

Brick-and-mortar schools likely won’t disappear. But expect more virtual education.

Some predict that half of high school classes by 2019 will be online. Others, like McGuire with Broward, envision a quarter of high school classes going virtual.

Carvalho and others envision a third option: blending online class with more traditional teaching. That’s the version the Miami-Dade district launched last year at its iPrep downtown and is expanding this year to three other schools.

“A blended environment, I think is going to be the wave of the future,” he said.

Already, the profile of online students has changed.

Before, mostly high-achieving students — eager to boost their GPA or earn college credit — took an extra class online. The credit counts the same as in a physical school.

Now more students who struggled in traditional class go online to catch up.

In Miami Lakes, 17-year-old Steve Morales takes all of his classes online through Florida Virtual School. At Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High, he was late a lot and got Cs and Bs.

“Electronics I get into,” he said, checking out his assignments on his laptop

“I can do it at other people’s houses. I can do it at my house. On my kitchen table, on my couch, on my bed, anywhere.”

Steve’s mom, Laura Morales, appreciates all the emails and phone updates from teachers. She can monitor his daily progress from work or after dinner. And his grades have improved to As and Bs.

“He’s walking away with information,” she said. And eventually, she hopes, a high school diploma.

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