Florida Virtual School: Growing and Managing a Virtual Giant

Article excerpt

In central Florida, Kaila Julia wants to be a nuclear physicist. In order to follow her dreams she needs an advance placement (AP) calculus course. When she could not fit the course into her schedule, she opted to take it online through Florida Virtual School (FLVS). David Marz, a junior in Volusia County, turned to FLVS when he was diagnosed last spring with bone cancer. By taking classes online, David can keep up with his classmates while he receives monthly chemotherapy treatments.

Stories like these are becoming common among K-12 students who now enjoy online learning options through their school, district, or state-and those options are growing rapidly. Though distance education has been offered in colleges and universities for quite some time, it has been slower to catch on in the K-12 sector. Happily for students, this is no longer the case.

Ten years ago, K-12 online learning options were reserved largely for remote areas, such as the Western provinces of Canada. There were very few K-12 initiatives in the United States, and funding or legislation to support distance learning was practically nonexistent.

Change came in 1997 from a southern state that, until recently, did not exactly conjure ideas of bold and progressive educational initiatives. Two counties in Florida were awarded a "Break the Mold" grant from the state. Designed to encourage innovation, the grant allowed Orange and Alachua counties to explore online learning as an option for K-12 students. Such was the beginning of Florida Virtual School, now one of the country's largest virtual and most widely lauded virtual initiatives for middle and high school students.

That first year, Florida Virtual School served just 77 enrollments. In 2005-06, it served more than 55,000, and it projects to reach almost 80,000 in 2006-07. Today, the school stands as a remarkable success model on many fronts, including funding, legislative reform, professional develop- ment and, most important, student achievement. But FLVS has also provided something that educators across the nation need in order to create similar options in their area-a successful precedent.

How does an organization see such growth and success in such a relatively short time frame? "The organization is constantly pressuring itself to improve and innovate," notes Susan Patrick, president and chief exectutive officer of the National Council for Online Learning (NACOL), "It is inspiring in the sense that as FLVS realizes success, it puts effort into redevelopment, creating a constant cycle of innovation and improvement. That makes the program stand out."

Julie Young, president and chief exectutive officer of Florida Virtual School, believes that the ability to create policy rather than live within the bureaucratic structure of the school system gave FLVS the freedom to innovate. "Having the latitude to ... be driven by standards and student needs" versus a textbook was the fuel for innovation. The twin demands of standards and student needs continue to fuel the self-challenging ethic that is so much a part of the organization's cultural ethos.

Indeed, FLVS has raised the bar on itself several times. "In the early years, our completion rate was about 50%, and we thought that was pretty good because it was consistent with rates we heard from universities who were, at that time, much further into the online learning game," notes Phyllis Lentz, director of Global Services at FLVS. "The state, however, let us know that they really expected something different from us. They didn't need an option that was just like those that already existed. They needed something better."

So Florida Virtual School did something that schools don't often do: They asked students for input. In fact, student feedback has since become integral to the way FLVS conducts business. "What we learned from that feedback was invaluable in shaping our program," says Lentz. Over the course of the next few years the completion rate climbed to percentages in the 1990s. …