Creating an Effective Virtual School Program: Administrators Are Sold on Virtual Schools-But Get Bogged Down in Execution. Here's What Creates Successful District Programs
Sturgeon, Julie, District Administration
Julie Young, president and CEO of Florida Virtual School in Orlando, is all smiles over the latest Advanced Placement test results that show Florida Virtual School has once again outscored both the state and nation, even though it works with many underserved students in the Sunshine State.
For example, in AP calculus, FLVS students' mean score for 2006 was 3.39, compared to 2.81 for the state, out of a top score of 5. And AP English literature and composition results showed a mean score of 3.03, compared to 2.63 for the state.
"Cutting edge is a good description for us now," says Young.
In fact, virtual schools could be the hottest trend in U.S. education today. Twenty-four states offer virtual school programs, which account for more than 500,000 courses, according to the D.C.-based North American Council for Online Learning's latest report. And statistics show a steady 30 percent enrollment growth annually, according to NACOL president and CEO Susan Patrick.
Connections Academy, which is based in Baltimore and provides courses for K10 virtual public schools, geared up to serve nearly 8,000 students in 10 states this school year--a 100 percent jump in enrollment from last year. Likewise, the Florida Virtual School--often considered the guru of this niche--suddenly faces a 60 percent increase in students this year. It's a good news--bad news scenario: helping more students is its mission, but growing enrollment numbers mean a need for more trained instructors and more courses down the line.
"Across the board you have without a doubt a technological movement in this country," says John G. Flores, CEO of the United States Distance Learning Association in Boston. "Distance learning is not only impacting education reform and education change, but more importantly it's giving students new options they've never had before."
Patrick claims only 30 percent of chemistry teachers have all the qualifications to teach in their field, and there aren't enough foreign language teachers to go around.
Online learning allows students anywhere to access teachers who are out of their zip code, and it also opens up course work to the homeschool crowd. Some administrators say students enroll because their families want to travel, and virtual school education becomes the means to enable this. Virtual schools also offer advanced courses that are not available in the brick-and-mortar buildings in some districts.
But such kudos for online learning these days amount to preaching to the choir--K12 administrators instead are eager to know how to take those first steps into cyberspace to ensure they have a high quality program for students.
The choices begin immediately. If a district's state offers a statewide virtual school, individual districts may register for that. Districts can also partner with nonprofit providers, or for-profit curriculum providers such as Atlanta-based AMDG, Inc. or Connections Academy, most of which allow administrators either to buy a license that allows their own staff to teach the virtual lessons or tap into the company-hired instructors.
If a district enrolls a student in an online course that is sponsored by its statewide virtual school, the school pays tuition, ranging from $100 to a few hundred dollars per student every semester. Or if there is no virtual school, a regional or school-based virtual school could either develop a locally funded virtual school or try to obtain legislative funding from its state. Rules vary from state to state, says Liz Pape, CEO of the Virtual High School in Massachusetts. Course licenses range from $15,000 per semester for a district to $50,000 for a statewide license, which would be paid by the regional or school-based virtual school.
This is an improvement over the Wild West that Greg Morse, chairman of AMDG Inc., first encountered a decade ago. Morse recalls that when early adopters didn't have online courses to use, they launched Web sites that were essentially trading repositories that allowed administrators to take a course. …