"Race, Poverty, and Virtual Learning,"by Sharon Johnston & Michelle Kinley May/June 2003 issue of Poverty & Race
Florida Virtual School (FLVS), an innovative educational opportunity, breaks the mold of traditional education. Our virtual learning environment allows students to choose the time convenient for them to "attend class." Our online courses offer a choice for all learners. FLVS students consist of public school, homeschool and private school students, athletes, performers and students with scheduling conflicts or medical problems. For the 2002-03 school year, 71% of the students served were from public schools, 23% were home schoolers and 6% were private and charter school students. The program serves middle and high school students, with no immediate plans to serve elementary school students, out of concerns for how educationally appropriate this mode of instruction is for younger children. FLVS is part of the Florida Public Schools, and public school students who participate in its activities are required to get sign-off from their geographical school in order to enroll. Most public school students take just one or two online courses from FLVS as a supplement to their regular curriculum.
The primary reasons for developing FLVS were to give students a choice in how, when, and where they learn, with the intended outcome of increasing student achievement and ensuring that all students in Florida have equal access to all courses, especially the high-level courses.
Teaching is not just about the curriculum, it's about connecting with students. FLVS has designed its courses and instruction to maximize the student-teacher-parent relationship. All of the 49 full-time and 51 adjunct teachers have state certification in the field they are teaching, and there is an intensive, ongoing staff development program covering FLVS pedagogy, technology, policies and procedures. For the first year, teachers have a veteran FLVS teacher as a mentor. FLVS instructors are available to students via cell phone, pager, email, chat rooms and instant messaging throughout the day, week and weekends. We have created an online environment that gives students the opportunity to receive individualized attention from their instructor, resulting in a mastery of learning approach. By providing parents instant access to their child’s grade book, progress reports and instructional comments, FLVS has built a model in which the student receives instruction from a highly qualified instructor while receiving support at home from his or her parents.
FLVS launched its first online courses in 1997. In 2000, the Florida Legislature established FLVS as an independent educational entity with a separate governing board. The Legislature supports FLVS through a direct line item budget allocation ($6.2 million in 2002-03, which covers all costs). In most respects, FLVS now has a legal status comparable to the 67 school districts that make up Florida’s public school system.
For the 2003-04 school year, it is estimated that FLVS will serve 18,000 enrollments (a figure representing all courses taken) in more than 70 online courses. Current course offerings include regular and honors-level high school credit courses covering all curriculum areas, high-stakes test preparation courses and middle school courses. Through creation of a partnership with eight school districts, FLVS has also developed three courses specifically targeted for adult high school students, as well as the state’s first fully online GED preparation course.
Educational leaders across the nation are being challenged as never before to create opportunities to meet the varied needs of students. Many leaders are beginning to implement online education as a part of their solution to meet a wide range of challenges. These challenges include such issues as providing educational choice, promoting the use of technology in learning, dealing with large increases or decreases in student enrollment, and producing students who have the knowledge and skills to immediately succeed in their post-secondary pursuits or the workforce.
As of 2002, there are 88 virtual schools in the United States serving nearly 180,000 enrollments. It is anticipated that by 2004, more then one million students will take an online course. FLVS has received international attention that for its work in distance learning, and, beyond Florida, provides courses and/or instruction in 17 other states and five countries.
A Resource for Underserved Populations
To reach the underserved populations, FLVS hired an e-learning manager who connects with minority groups to promote access for minority and disadvantaged students. By working with One Florida, a state initiative that “unites Floridians behind a shared vision of opportunity and diversity,” FLVS is involved in projects that promote educational and technological equity throughout the state. One Florida has the goal of providing the same level of high-quality services to all students and their families, regardless of where they live, the wealth of their family or the color of their skin. Some of the groups involved in One Florida that are working with FLVS to pave the path for minority students are The Hundred Black Men, NAACP, the Digital Divide Council and The Work Force Innovation Boards. A major challenge has been to find ways to provide equal access as well as connectivity to those in need. Businesses and organizations that are One Florida members have been locating or creating local community centers or hubs that can provide Internet access for students. Despite the group’s effort, the demand for computers and connectivity outweigh the supply. Calls come in each day with requests for connectivity to the Internet, computers new or old, as well as computer parts (printers, scanners etc.). [See “Race, Poverty and the Digital Divide,” by Brian Komar, the lead article in the Jan./Feb. 2002 P&R.]
By establishing a priority registration process, allowing minority students top priority in registering for courses, FLVS has witnessed the minority population increase to 21%. To reach into the community, FLVS teamed with colleagues in Work Force Education for a grant that targets a specific community center in the heart of Orlando. In February 2003, FLVS staff hosted a technology workshop for the center’s leaders. One FLVS teacher will work with the students and parents at this center, and the students will be enrolled in the FLVS critical thinking course.
In order to serve all Florida students with quality Advanced Placement (AP) courses, FLVS partnered with the College Board in another One Florida project. FLVS and the College Board submitted a proposal to the U.S. Department of Education for an AP Incentive Grant, which was funded in 2001. This federal grant is given to states to support exam fee reductions and professional development for teachers so that students will have expanded access to AP courses. FLVS teachers work in partnership with teachers in schools with underserved populations that have no AP courses. The schools identify teachers who may want to teach AP courses, so they can participate in summer workshops and College Board Summer Institutes. Throughout the school year, these teachers work with the FLVS teacher in offering the AP curriculum online to students at their school. As a result of the AP Incentive Grant project and other efforts, for the 2002-03 school year, 40% of the students in AP courses are minority.
FLVS Minority Student Speaks:
My name is Jalon Dardy and I am an African American young lady who is currently a senior at Palm Beach Lakes High.
Regardless of race and poverty, online learning has given students the chance to challenge themselves, try something new, obtain a higher level of freedom, earn a college credit early, and display intelligence and potential. Although minority students facing poverty may have a little more difficulty in obtaining these benefits, we are not at all discouraged from reaching our goals. In fact, our disadvantages help us to reach higher and stretch further for the advantages.
Four of the students that took the FLVS AP Microeconomics course with me lived with a single mother. Three of them were black. All four students’ fathers had left their families and only one of the black students had no sibling(s). Yes, none of us had the money to buy three computers, pay $700 a month for a car, or go to the mall every week, but we all at least had the chance to take a free accelerated course online. Online learning opens a door to the future and closes a door of the past.
Sharon Johnston (Sjohnston@flvs.net) oversees curriculum development and validation for FLVS, where she also teaches AP literature and composition. Michelle Kinley (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Minority Recruitment e-Learning Manager for FLVS.
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