Florida Business Profile
How a restless assistant principal built the nation's leading online public school.
But money is an issue for Young, too. State per-student funding to Florida Virtual has fallen as in traditional schools, to $4,800 per full-time equivalent from $6,800 four years ago. (At many traditional schools, an FTE is the same as a student. At Florida Virtual, an FTE can be 12 kids each taking a half-credit course.) This year she's had to cut course development spending and raise through attrition the teacher-student ratio to 25:1 from 23:1.
She's responded by hiring a consultant to find efficiencies, and she's made changes. For instance, to efficiently use teacher time, a call center now tracks down a student and parent to schedule a teacher phone conference after the teacher has tried three times on her own to reach a student who is lagging.
She also is looking at revenue generation. The school won a $2-million grant from the Gates Foundation this year to develop four math and English college readiness courses. Florida Virtual now offers tutoring for a fee to non-Florida Virtual students. Mobile apps for virtual frog dissection, algebra and reading are for sale on iTunes for $4.99 each. Fee-generating adult ed courses may come.
But her biggest revenue play is the deal to sell Florida Virtual courses under the umbrella of textbook publisher Pearson. Young says Pearson could bring Florida Virtual $20 million to $30 million in several years, money she hopes to plow into course development, which averages $300,000 per course.
Demand for online will be there but, as tech pioneers have found, being first doesn't stifle new competition. The Legislature, in a bow to Bush and Wise's initiative, passed a Digital Learning Now Act this year mandating that all state high school students take at least one class online to graduate, creating more demand. But it also authorized virtual charter schools and new virtual providers, opening the state to more competition and models. One such provider, a Virginia-based for-profit company, K12, already had nearly as many students in 2009-10 as Florida Virtual's full-time headcount. Meanwhile, 38 states now have state virtual schools or a state online initiative.
Young sees plenty of opportunity. Florida Virtual still just touches less than 5% of Florida's public school enrollment. Charter schools are calling about accessing Florida Virtual curriculum. Districts are talking to Florida Virtual about playing the online role in their Race to the Top grants.
A Florida TaxWatch study found that Florida Virtual saved the state money and that its students performed better than those in traditional classes — mirroring national research on the effectiveness of virtual schooling. [Photo: Florida Virtual School]
Based on her career track record, Young, 15 years into heading Florida Virtual, would seem overdo for a change. But Florida Virtual is different, the 51-year-old says. "What's been really cool about this job is that the changes, which bring about challenges, are the things that jazz me and keep me energized and keep me fresh. This job is always like a new job."