by Mike Vogel
Updated 12 months ago
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.
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.
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."
How Many and Who
97,011 — Students who took at least one high school course online in 2009-10 — 12% of all high school students.
57% — More than half of all students taking a course online are female.
Where the Students Come From
Students from large counties constitute nearly 40% of all online students.
|County||% of All Online Students|
Type of School
|Public schools, including charters||66%|
What They Study
The top virtual courses, as a percentage of overall online enrollment:
|Course||Students % of Online|
|Driver’s Ed/Traffic Safety||5|
3,565 — Number of students enrolled in online Advanced Placement courses (3.6% of the total)
42% of the students in online AP courses are minorities.