They didn’t like it, but the Pasco County School Board earlier this month approved the application of a virtual charter school that was once under state investigation.
In a 3-1 vote, with Alison Crumbley dissenting, the board allowed the Southwest Florida Virtual Charter Board to open a virtual charter school in Pasco County — as long as the school meets stringent quality guidelines.
It turned a rather significant page in the evolution of virtual education with the expansion of such services in the county. But then the landscape shifted significantly when the state-run Florida Virtual School announced massive layoffs after an enrollment drop and changes to how the state funds it.
The future of educating students no matter where they are is at a precipice, and virtual education must find a way to not only survive, but thrive, says Pasco eSchool principal Joanne Glenn.
“It’s a great choice option for a variety of families in a variety of circumstances,” Glenn said.
Virtual schools are typically done through a computer and Internet connection, and were designed for students who were geographically challenged to get specific coursework from a bricks and mortar operation. Today, however, these types of schools are being used more and more by students looking to supplement what they’re already doing in an actual school classroom.
“Students in kind of a traditional setting began to supplement their instruction through virtual schools,” Glenn said. “They can take courses to recover credits, or even take courses that can accelerate their workload, to help them complete graduation requirements in their off time, so they can free up space to do a dual enrollment court or advanced placement.”
Pasco started its eSchool in 2009, and last year serviced 5,500 semester courses for 2,300 students. And that’s just for middle school and high school. The elementary eSchool has about 100 students — a smaller number because it requires not only the regular involvement of the student and teacher, but a parent as well.
Although interest in virtual schools continues to grow each year, the charter operation offered by the Southwest Florida Virtual Charter Board was met with so much skepticism from the board when it was first introduced last spring that they denied the request.
Southwest Florida Virtual appealed that decision to Florida’s Department of Education, prompting school board members to reconsider without risking a lengthy legal battle.
An investigation concluded Southwest Florida Virtual hired only certified teachers in Seminole County, but concerns remain.
“Student achievement, or the lack thereof, is something we are very worried about,” said Nancy Scowcroft, supervisor of charter schools for Pasco County. “Their school grades are not being posted on the Department of Education’s website, which means they are appealing. I don’t know what these scores look like, but apparently they are not where they want to be.”
The county maintains oversight of charter schools to make sure they are meeting specific criteria. With bricks and mortar schools, it means just traveling to different parts of the county when needed. However, to see what’s happening with Florida Virtual Academy of Pasco County, as this new school will be called, it will require regular trips to Daytona Beach.
“That means spending more money just to keep an eye on everything,” Scowcroft said.
Jeff Kwitowski, a spokesman for Virginia-based K12 Inc., which calls itself the “vendor” for the charter school operations in Florida, points to the fact that the previous claims against the school were unsubstantiated. And even if there was an issue of teachers lacking certification for their particular subject matter, it’s not against the law.
The state department of education reports more than 8,700 teachers in Florida’s schools are teaching courses outside their subject certification, Kwitowski said in a statement. He added that Seminole County, which made the complaint, admitted to having 100 teachers without proper certification in the 2011-12 school year alone.
“K12 had only three teachers whose certifications were ‘out-of-field,’ and they were quickly corrected,” Kwitowski said.
Some of the demand for virtual schools will now be shared by both Florida Virtual Academy and Pasco eSchool. And that alone could very well create a strong future for this newer type of learning, eSchool principal Glenn said, especially since taking at least one virtual course is a graduation requirement for the Class of 2015.
“This is the way a lot of employers are delivering on-the-job training now and professional development, and it’s also something that is happening more and more in post-secondary schools, colleges and universities,” Glenn said. “This gives all of our students a chance to have that first experience in a supported environment. So once they get out there in the real world, they’ll be ready.”