Florida Virtual School

Florida Virtual School

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Introduction

Billy Mayhood was born with undeveloped nerves and muscles in the right side of his face, leaving him unable to move it, and the target of teasing from schoolmates. While surgeons had performed five nerve transplants on Mayhood between the ages of 5 and 14, the surgeries left his face swollen, and by middle school, teasing had turned to bullying. Administrators couldn’t help. “No matter how many times my parents and I met with administrators to do something, we just never got anywhere,” said Mayhood, now a ninth grader. “By February of my seventh grade year I decided that I needed to get out of that school.”

But rather than giving up education Mayhood discovered the Florida Virtual School that allowed him to take classes in a private, comfortable setting, away from the distractions and bullying of classmates. The differences were stark and immediate. The challenging classes and stress-free setting rekindled Mayhood’s confidence and enthusiasm for school.

“Each week, I was usually finished with all of my course work by Thursday. If I wanted to – and I usually did – I could continue on ahead with my course work.”

Florida Virtual School is helping tens of thousands of students discover their fullest scholastic potential, whether students like Billy Mayhood, scholar-athletes like Lindsey Bergeon, who received an accredited and highly recognized FLVS education that allowed her to practice and travel to golf tournaments in pursuit of her dream of becoming a pro golfer.

FLVS is an innovative educational model that offers an excellent alterative to urban and rural students stuck in poorly-performing schools, schools with limited course options, and schools that are unable to meet medical and other needs of students requiring unique and flexible learning environments. Using the Internet and other technologies, FLVS has radically changed Florida’s educational landscape, and stands to do the same in schools across the country. The FLVS model is appealing because it gives students the flexibility and support they need to achieve at their highest potential, while offering teachers enthusiastic pupils and the satisfaction students each year. Strict academic integrity measures and high professional expectations accompany an equally high level of teacher support and training.

FLVS became a permanent part of Florida’s education funding program in 2003, making it the first online school in the nation to achieve that goal. It was an achievement, however, with a very big caveat—one that FLVS lobbied for and received: The State pays FLVS the full per-pupil allotment only if students actually complete the course successfully.

The Benefits

The establishment of a performance-based funding model by FLVS and the Florida legislature is arguably the achievement that carries the greatest positive implications for education as a whole. The model shifts focus away from how much time a student spends in a seat or where they learn and places it on mastery of subject.

Another important FLVS innovation is freeing students from traditional time constraints. FLVS drew heavily from a 1994 report, “Prisoners of Time,” from the National Education Commission on Time and Learning, which urged educators to measure success not by seat time but by achievement. For the first time, K-12 students have the needed flexibility of pace to help them learn better. From an academic perspective, this may be one of the greatest benefits and achievements of online learning for K12.

While pace modification alone abets significant individualization, teachers can further individualize instructional methods as needed with students who are struggling in various areas, whether literacy, second-language challenges, physical limitations, or more. Open enrollment allows students to start any time of year, while flexible scheduling allows students to work evenings or weekends if that is the best time for them.

Consider Billy Mayhood, who said the flexibility and teachers helped him excel. “I also have built really good relationships with my teachers,” Mayhood said, noting that one FLVS teacher spent 90 minutes on the phone with him to help him with algebra problems he was having a hard time understanding. “I have more of a one-on-one connection with my FLVS teachers because I’m not competing for their attention with other students”

Teachers are also benefiting. While many understand how online learning supports individualization, FLVS educators are also realizing the collaborative benefits to online learning and are taking the initiative to design more learning venues that bring students together across socio-economic, political, cultural, and language barriers.

Also, in a digital environment, it is easier to pinpoint specific teacher strengths and weaknesses. With positive management and excellent support, teachers can grow professionally as never before. Indeed, even veteran classroom instructors report significant growth in their teaching practices after moving to FLVS.

Given these benefits, it is no surprise that Florida Virtual School has grown dramatically. Indeed, our greatest challenge today is to manage growth and change while maintaining quality. More than 100,000 enrollments are expected this year, with every kind of student imaginable represented in the demographic mix, including emotionally and physically handicapped students, students with learning disabilities, and students who are academically advanced.

The legislature has also mandated FLVS to give priority to students from rural, high-minority, and low-performing schools. Minorities comprise about one third of FLVS’s population, exceeding the national online learning participation rate among minorities by about 20%. Among AP students, minority participation was at 39% in 2006-2007. FLVS has also been instrumental in opening up AP and advanced math and science to rural students who otherwise would have no such options. Florida Virtual School’s mandate is to continue to increase opportunities for underserved students, and all development efforts keep that mandate as a priority.

The program also offers students a harder to measure, but well documented, benefit—hope: “I have three more years with FLVS and I’m excited about each one,” Mayhood said. “FLVS saved me from a horrific experience and gave me a chance to stretch my academic muscles and discover a new and fun way to learn.”

Applicability to Massachusetts

According to the Pioneer Institute’s April 2007 policy brief, “Scaling up Educational Accountability and Innovation,” the problems that Massachusetts and many other states face require an increase in the pace and scale of reform efforts. For instance, the report states that despite progress since the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act, Massachusetts is still struggling to apply the twin forces of accountability and innovation on a wide scale. In 2006, the report noted, 157 schools were placed on the federal “In Need of Improvement” list. As in Florida, and likely throughout the nation, families are desperate for choices. The time has come, in education, to achieve a more flexible, collaborative, innovative, and results-driven model.

Florida Virtual School is one such model. The school’s desire is and always has been to end complacency with mediocrity, the stringent ties to “the way things have always been done,” the temptation to be self-serving instead of student-serving, and to end the bureaucracy that too often blinds educational institutions from the needs of the very students they were created to serve.

Florida’s leaders believed that it was their responsibility to provide numerous options for all students, whether public, private, or home educated. Like Massachusetts, Florida is a state with myriad challenges, but FLVS provides a model for how the right mix of partnerships, innovation, transparency, and accountability can begin to make the dream of education reform a reality.

This bodes well for the future. Currently, FLVS is working with Academic Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) Co-Lab, the developers and leaders in SCORM-compliant* learning technologies, to develop next-generation online learning applications. Specifically, a greater emphasis on prescriptive-based, object-oriented learning is underway, paired with a focus on gaming, interactive, digital-media formats, and the brain-based research that will underpin this kind of development.

FLVS is also working on pilot programs to deliver math, fitness, nutrition, and science-related problems to students via SMS/text messaging, voice, and video messaging, using cell phones. Questions and problems in a sports-related theme, posed by professional athletes, are sent to students to win points for solving successfully

Conclusion

The Internet, like the printing press or combustion engine, is a technology that has and continues to revolutionize society. The creators of the Florida Virtual School recognized this potential long ago and, fully aware that they have only scratched the surface of the Internet’s possibilities, continue to explore new educational opportunities as the technology evolves. But helping children achieve their fullest academic potential requires more than intelligent uses of technology, it requires educators, politicians and parents to recognize that each individual child finds him or herself in situations that are unique them, and that education must adjust to them, not the other way around. Imagine if Billy Mayhood was required to adjust to bullying, rather than providing him with an option like FLVS.

FLVS understands that the challenges facing families are complex, from juggling hectic work schedules, finding time to spend together, and raising children to skilled, productive and responsible members of society. Because public schools are not always able to accommodate the needs and desires of children and their parents, options such as FLVS need to be available and expanded. FLVS also realizes that, as the numbers of its students grows, parents and education officials are alsorecognizing that options such as FLVS are indispensable in nurturing the greatest number of American students possible. While FLVS recognizes its value to American education, it is anything but complacent with its achievement, and strives to raise its already high graduation rates while expanding the number of children it can help succeed.

Contact the Author:
Julie Young
President and CEO
Florida Virtual School
4215 Prairie View Dr. S.
Sarasota, FL 34232
941.554.2122 (office)
E-mail Address(es): kjohnson@flvs.net, Julie’s assistant
www.flvs.net
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