When Lake Placid mom Katie Wilson's daughter Madison came home crying day after day from her first-grade class, Wilson wasn't sure what to do.
"We just had some issues with her teacher," Wilson said. A counselor recommended that Wilson "remove (Madison) from the whole situation."
"I panicked," Wilson recalled, thinking "I don't know how to home school her. I don't want her to fall behind."
A friend recommended Florida Virtual School, and after looking into it, Wilson signed her daughter up for the spring semester.
Online options for education are becoming more and more well-known in the digital age. While most higher learning institutions offer online classes and even fully online degrees, there are options for the K-12 segment as well.
In fact, the 2012 Florida Statute 1003.428 revision now requires that high schoolers take at least one online course before graduation to prepare them for this type of learning environment.
Florida Virtual School (FLVS) is one of the largest and most well-known options in K-12 online learning in the state of Florida. FLVS offers more than 120 course options and is free to Florida residents. It is a 16-year-old, fully-accredited public school district created by the state of Florida, stated Tania Clow, spokeswoman for the organization.
FLVS offers a full-time elementary school program through a partnership with Connections Academy and a full-time or part-time program for middle and high schoolers. A home-schooling option is also available.
Wilson said she was a little bit nervous about the online school and didn't know what to expect at first.
"They sent us every single book we needed - workbooks, textbooks, even supplies, crayons and markers, pencils and erasers."
FLVS also loaned them a laptop.
"We had to return everything at the end of the school year," explained Wilson, who added that the school also provided fake money to practice math skills and even goggles and beakers to conduct science experiments.
The process was very hands-on for Wilson, who needed to be there to help her daughter read some material and assist her if she was having trouble.
"I was told from the virtual teacher not to do everything for her. They wanted her to be able to do a lot of it for herself," Wilson stated.
Pros to the system, according to Wilson, included Madison being able to learn at her own pace, what Wilson felt was a broader focus on social studies, the use of videos and other instructional techniques, and a lack of distractions. Cons to learning online included lack of socialization and missing out on music class and P.E. A local group offered playdates and field trips, but the Wilsons weren't able to attend.
As for sports and clubs, Florida statutes state that students in district virtual instruction programs who meet certain academic and conduct requirements are eligible to participate in extracurricular activities.
Madison is now attending fifth-grade classes at Lake Placid Elementary, but Wilson is considering enrolling her daughter online for middle school.
v vIn addition to FLVS, there are other online options for parents and students. K12 is a private education management organization that provides online learning for elementary through high school. A spokesperson did not return phone calls, but the company website states that K12 programs are available in 28 states, the District of Columbia and 36 countries.
The site describes options such as a full-time "online public school" program, an online private school program, "blended" learning that can occur in a computer lab at school, curriculum for teachers to use in the classroom and purchasable curriculum.
When students enroll with an online public school district, requirements are the same as for brick-and-mortar schools. Teachers must be state-certified, kids must take state achievement tests, and the curriculum must adhere to state standards.
Clow said there are a number of reasons why families might choose an online education. Students may want to "accelerate," take a course their school may not provide, do grade forgiveness or credit recovery, or just want to take extra courses, Clow said.
Some virtual students may be home-schooled, in military families, expatriates or struggling with physical or mental health issues and even bullying in a typical school setting.
According to Clow, during the 2012-2013 school year (measured as a typical brick-and-mortar school year even though FLVS offers rolling enrollment year-round) FLVS had 790 part-time and 68 full-time students from Highlands County.
The most popular courses across the state are Algebra I and Algebra II for core courses and driver's ed, P.E., Spanish I and Spanish II for electives. Although FLVS has announced a recent rash of teacher layoffs due to reduced enrollment, Clow said that will not affect the variety of courses.
Another way to help a student improve certain skills online is with the tutoring site Khan Academy. This not-for-profit group has a heavy focus on math and science and offers videos, practice tests, achievement "badges" and tracking, all available for free.
v vMatt Juve just graduated from Sebring High this spring. He is a virtual schooling veteran, having taken online classes since the second grade. Juve's mom, Diane, discovered he was way ahead in math and enrolled him in the Stanford Education Program for Gifted Youth. Matt Juve did his math online in a classroom at his school until fifth grade, when he did it on his own, said Diane Juve.
Matt Juve began FLVS classes in the seventh grade and has taken 19 FLVS classes in total. Since the Advanced Placement computer software course wasn't available at his high school, Matt Juve was able to take it through FLVS. When he starts his computer software engineering degree program at Auburn this year, he'll already have his first semester under his belt.
Online classes are a great option for bright and motivated kids to get ahead in their education, agreed FLVS Latin instructor and Sebring resident Dara Taylor. Her 16-year-old daughter Adrianna Taylor used FLVS to get ahead in math. That, in conjunction with dual enrollment courses she's taking at South Florida State College, has Adrianna on track to graduate from high school with an associate degree in chemistry.
Taylor, who has taught both virtually and in the classroom, has 10 years experience teaching online. She said she averages about 180 students at a time, all of them working at their own pace through the online material.
She keeps in touch regularly with each student via text, phone and/or messaging. She is also in communication with the parents.
Taylor said the model works well. "I feel like I know my students and their families better as a whole," she said, adding that students seem more open to being vulnerable and asking questions "because they are not looking at my face."
Students pass or fail in pretty much the same way they do in a brick-and-mortar school. Grades are based on doing and turning in the work, the quality of the work and tests.
And what about cheating? Clow explained that every piece of work students submit is checked across the Internet for plagiarism as well as compared with past work from every other FLVS student. Teachers also check kids' knowledge with that old piece of technology - the telephone. If they submitted an essay but can't tell the teacher anything about what was in it, there's a red flag.
v vDespite a July report by the National Education Policy Center finding K12 online students lagged behind traditional students in both grades and graduation rates, experts agree there isn't enough research to determine whether an online education is better or worse than an education in a traditional classroom. The few studies that have been done show no statistically significant difference between the two models.
Critics of online learning say it takes needed money away from local school districts, who have to maintain expensive facilities and limited teacher-student ratios. New state legislation has changed funding for local districts and virtual schools, but Highlands County coordinator of student services Marcia Davis said they won't know the impact of that change until the end of the year.
Current Highlands County virtual student enrollment numbers were not available, and Davis said their numbers would only include students who did their studies online and who also had Highlands County listed as their public school district. The figures would not include students using FLVS as their public school district.
Davis said that she's seen many kids pulled out of brick-and-mortar schools when they are struggling and placed in virtual schools instead, only to see those kids come back the following year with no credits earned. "There's a misconception that (online school) is easy, and it's not," she warned.
She sees the model as being very successful for self-motivated kids and kids who are strong in academics.
The schools also allow failing kids to make up classes online during school hours in a computer lab.
"We try to help these kids get caught up," Davis added, saying she was unsure of the exact cost to the district but, "it's just worth it for us."
Matt Juve said the hardest part about being an online student was being self-motivated enough to sit down and to get the work done. "I like being able to work at my own pace in some classes, spend more time on things that I need to. Then sometimes I'll get a concept and I can move right on."