Florida Business Profile
How a restless assistant principal built the nation's leading online public school.
Young, who makes $180,000 a year, also created a culture different from that in traditional schools. "We made the decision that if something wasn't working, we were not going to wait to the next school year to change it. I loved the creative and innovative part of being able to make it up as we went along." She would be "Julie" rather than "Mrs. Young" to the teachers and staff. Florida Virtual wouldn't be tied to an academic year; students would work at their own pace, as part of an "any time, any place, any path, any pace" mantra. She opened classes to home-schoolers and private school students. Her workforce isn't unionized. It pays more for instructors in hard-to-fill or critical-need areas.
The screen shows the interface used by students in an online economics course. This year, the Legislature passed the Digital Learning Now Act mandating that all state high school students take at least one class online to graduate. [Photo: Florida Virtual School]
Starting with 77 students, the school grew rapidly. Kids with chronic health problems and kids with athletic careers saw it as a solution to their needs. It enabled students to take classes they couldn't fit in their schedules or AP classes their schools didn't offer, an issue in rural and inner-city schools.
Some used it to accelerate ahead of their peers. Others used it to make up an F in traditional school without falling behind peers. Most important, virtual learning made time malleable. Unlike in traditional schools, a student who got a D on the chapter 4 algebra test on Friday could go back and master it rather than be forced to move on to chapter 5 with the rest of the class on Monday.
Some districts weren't receptive and kept students out of Florida Virtual, but others were eager. When the Broward district wanted to put more students in online classes than Young could accommodate, the district and Young worked out a franchise agreement: Young provided the curriculum; the district provided the teachers. By 2009, 17,394 students were taking Florida Virtual classes through such district franchises.
The voter-approved 2003 constitutional amendment limiting class size spurred growth. Cash-strapped districts faced with finding and paying a new AP calculus teacher because a class was five or 10 students over the class-size ceiling instead sent them to Florida Virtual.
Traditional educators had their doubts. How could Florida Virtual know whether the student knocking the quadratic equation questions out of the park on the home computer was the same one registered for the course? Where was the evidence that students learned as well online?
Young says cheating always will be an issue for both online and brick-and-mortar schools but that an academic integrity group and the voice-to-voice contact — including oral assessments and phone chats with parents — keep students honest.
On efficacy, the breakthrough came in a 2007 study by Florida TaxWatch's Center for Educational Performance and Accountability that found Florida Virtual saved the state money and its students performed better. Nationally, research shows virtual schooling is "at least" as effective as traditional schooling, says Cathy Cavanaugh, a University of Florida associate professor and online education authority. As in traditional school, results depend on the quality of the teacher and how well the student fits with a teacher or approach, she says.
The marketplace offered its own validation. Demand from outside Florida led Young to create a self-supporting operation for out-of-state students. Revenue from the Global School last year reached $5.5 million, with some course profit margins as high as 50%.
Florida Virtual science instructor Denise Munroe communicates with a student. As part of online coursework, teachers and students are required to have voice-to-voice communication along with their online interactions. [Photo: Florida Virtual School]
Nationally, online ed is booming. Enrollment is growing by 46% each year, and by 2019 half of high school courses will be delivered online, according to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.
Bush and former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise lead a Digital Learning Now initiative to promote a new paradigm nationally. Wise has said that online learning solves challenges facing the nation such as the lack of education attainment needed in a global market and declining state revenue.