Florida Business Profile
How a restless assistant principal built the nation's leading online public school.
Heady Company: A trade publication named Florida Virtual President and CEO Julie Young, along with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, a "top 30 influencer" in education technology. She chairs the United States Distance Learning Association. For the past two years, the Center for Digital Education named Florida and Florida Virtual the top virtual education provider in the nation. [Photo: Brook Pifer]
Like a dot-com founder whose company never went bust, Julie Young has steered an internet-based growth rocket for 15 years. Since creating the first state online school — the proverbial "first mover advantage" in investing lingo — she's parlayed it into a $120-million-a-year operation that's among the nation's largest K-12 schools, with so many students that it's bigger than 41 of the state's 67 geographically defined districts.
And after all that growth, Young and Florida Virtual School may just be getting started. Her operation enrolled more than 120,000 Florida students in 2010-11 in more than 110 courses, from driver's education to Advanced Placement Art History.
Florida Virtual has even developed a global brand, with students in 49 states and 46 countries taking classes. This year, Young inked a revenue-sharing deal with textbook publisher Pearson to sell Florida Virtual's courses nationally as "Pearson Virtual Learning Powered by Florida Virtual School."
Former Gov. Jeb Bush, who encouraged the online school initiative, says Young has created "by far and away, the largest government-sponsored virtual school, many, many fold."
Not bad for someone who didn't even know she was an entrepreneur until she had been one for several years.
"We made the decision that if something wasn't working, we were not going to wait to the next school year to change it," says Julie Young, with staff members. [Photo: Brook Pifer]
Administrators - 78
Non-instructional - 233
Full-time teachers - 1,035
Adjunct teachers - 69
Total - 1,415
She cut her technology teeth on Apple IIe and EduQuest machines, crawling under desks, running wires. When, as an assistant principal, she followed her husband to his new job in Orlando, Young was approached by Orange County school administrators in 1997 to lead that county's share of a $200,000 state "Break the Mold" grant to establish the school that grew into Florida Virtual.
It was an auspicious time for the venture in Florida. Then-Education Commissioner Frank Brogan (later lieutenant governor and now State University System chancellor) was keen on the project, as was Bush, who became governor two years later and made education reform the hallmark of his career. Bush says he encouraged Young to "think big." She did.
Key strategic decisions helped. Brogan saw in emerging digital education a good fit with a need to reach underserved students in innovative ways. Young praises Brogan for eliminating roadblocks and for the foresight to get the Legislature to initially fund Florida Virtual separately from district schools so it wouldn't compete with them for funding.
Young, for her part, settled early on the idea that student accomplishment would be the measure of the school. "We all know that seat time doesn't guarantee learning, and in some cases it obstructs learning," Young says. "I felt very strongly this is a model that needs to be based on mastery so that it can be individualized and personalized for kids."
It also lent itself to a business mindset for getting funded as Florida Virtual's revenue is based on the number of students who complete courses rather than the usual formula based on the number who warm chairs. She also chose a "high-touch" virtual model, in which students are required to have voice-to-voice contact with teachers rather than communicate solely online.