Florida’s Virtual High School

In the state where Jeb Bush governs, it’s no surprise the Department of Education’s catch phrase is “educational choice.” Shunning a one-size-fits-all mentality led to the Florida Virtual High School: an online alternative now available at no charge to every high school student in the Sunshine State.

It began in 1996 when the state legislature paired school districts that were experimenting with intraschool online courses, with the charge to explore a statewide roll-out. The team hired 10 people to staff the project today known as the Florida Virtual School and signed up 100 students in 1997. For the 2001-02 school year, the project boasts more than 70 employees on the payroll and expects more than 8,000 course enrollments across the state’s 67 school districts.

Most of the students sign up for a course or two rather than swap the physical classroom for a cyberworld. They enroll to accelerate learning in a subject, or they’re homebound due to an extended illness. Some attend rural schools that lack enough population to offer certain subjects. Others face a scheduling conflict and rely on the virtual school to allow them to have their cake and eat it too. This semester, they chose among more than 60 courses ranging from English to advanced calculus, physics, macroeconomics, Web design, Latin, and life management skills.

The courses are delivered in the e-education tool via the Internet, so students need only a browser to take advantage of the asynchronous delivery. “Our motto is any time, any place, any path, any pace,” says Phyllis Lentz, business development specialist at the Florida Virtual School. “When we did a survey asking students which part of the motto they found most important, they overwhelmingly answered ‘any time.’ Teen-agers like to learn when they want to.” Correspondence between teacher and student is handled through e-mail and telephone calls; the e-education tool provides gradebooks, white boards, discussion boards, and a synchronous chat room for those who choose to drop in.

The Florida Virtual School initially encountered a touch of anxiety from teachers who feared computers would replace their jobs. In reality, says Lentz, those hired to teach via computer have fewer students than in the physical classroom, and therefore deliver a more customized experience. These instructors are exclusive to the virtual school; no one spends daytime hours at a chalkboard and pulls double duty by night.

“Our school has taken on more of an elementary school personality, where we work very hard to motivate and nurture the student to complete the course work,” Lentz notes. The completion rate two years ago was 73 percent and today is on target to exceed an 80-percent completion rate. “That’s just unheard of in the distance education environment,” she adds. The Florida Virtual School has no mandatory customers, yet maintains a waiting list.

“Certainly we’ve vested a good amount of dollars into what we’ve done because there was no model,” Lentz says. “Trial and error costs a lot more money.” This January, the team expects to market the program to other states at an undetermined price tag.

Louisiana’s Center for Educational Technology

In 1997, Louisiana ranked 51st in the nation in technology access for students; its student-to-computer ratio stood at a dismal 88:1.

It was simply intolerable to the state board of education, the Governor’s office, and the legislature. So the Department of Education formed a division specifically to tackle this deficiency, and legislators got the ball rolling with $38 million as a “classroom-based technology” fund. The Louisiana Center for Educational Technology (LCET) was born.

Leaders at LCET added Federal Title 2 Technology Literacy Challenge funds to its coffers, and began a grassroots network of technology leaders to sweep the state and begin moving forward. The priority, says Chris O’Neal, former state director of technology, was on forming a human network that would work together across regional and district boundaries and combine efforts.

One of O’Neal’s first efforts was to visit officials in Georgia and other states to benchmark ideas. Among the programs they tweaked for LCET:

Louisiana INTECH

This 56-hour staff development program provides teachers with examples of technology-based strategies. The teachers learn basic technology skills that incorporate classroom management techniques, new designs for learning, best pedagogical practices, curriculum standards, and modern technology skills. As O’Neal describes it, INTECH was designed to take a look at the bigger picture of technology infusion, as opposed to application workshops.

Regional Teaching, Learning, and Technology Centers

In the past two years, LCET has planted nine TLTC facilities as extensions of its main office. Funded through the federal grant, they help deliver the INTECH classroom model.

Making Connections

This virtual resource center at the Department of Education’s Website provides a one-stop shop for instructional materials that include model lesson plans, Website resources, software products, and statewide assessment items.

Statewide Distance Learning Network

The SDLN provides curriculum via telecommunications systems such as telelearning, satellite, and compressed videoconferencing. LCET anticipates rolling out a pilot of Web-based courses that mirrors Florida’s online efforts this fall.

Computers for Louisiana’s Kids

O’Neal’s division partnered with the Louisiana Corporate Recycling Council to create an opportunity for school districts to install computer training and repair courses using donated equipment.

Other initiatives include national and state partnerships with brand names like the MarcoPolo Website and ThinkQuest, a K-12 online database of resources; and a technology leadership program for principals and superintendents.

“The best advice for states not quite moving ahead at the pace they’d like is to create a group of leaders that includes representation from school principals, superintendents, legislators, board members, and teachers,” says O’Neal. “Having input and buy-in from these groups from the beginning has helped establish a whole tour de force in Louisiana.”

Since opening LCET, the state has achieved an 8:1 student-to-computer ratio, and the legislature’s 2000 special session allocated $5 million to the classroom-based technology fund to purchase additional classroom computers, connect more classrooms to the Internet, and purchase software. The Technology Literacy Challenge Grant has awarded this state an additional $10.2 million.

Arizona’s Gold Mine

Spending $100 million to connect every public school to the Internet was only the beginning for Arizona’s state officials. This state now plans to emulate the data mining success Corporate America enjoys.

The specifics fall to Hayford Gyampoh, the chief information officer for Management Information Systems, who has been tapped to answer the unanswerable within the Arizona Department of Education. Gyampoh developed a core database to hold common data such as school/district/charter name, addresses, contacts, phone numbers, grades served, calendar information, and services. This simple premise thrills Gyampoh.

“Once we get our database populated, we can track, for example, the effect student mobility has on their test scores,” he explains. They can also use student enrollment to calculate funding for each district based on the average daily membership. Until now, the department could collect only aggregated information. “For the first time, the state will know whether the payments we’ve made previously are accurate. It’s difficult to assert the authenticity of aggregated information,” says Gyampoh. “But if you drill down to the detail level, you can actually know what is going on.”

This ability to compare, contrast, and drill down will be enhanced even more when the School Facilities Board completes the RFP for bids to develop an application service provider. This portal will contain a student information management system, with the ability to submit information to the state. But Gyampoh knows that’s a refinement for the future. Today, he’s focused on developing as much of his base data warehouse as possible. After three years helping administrators become comfortable with the software system involved, he will begin receiving data in August.

“I want to make it the Department of Education’s business to look at information as a gold mine where they can extract data, do a slice and dice, and make informed decisions,” he says.

Arizona isn’t the first state to consider data mining projects within education. However, Gyampoh maintains, his architecture sets them apart. He receives real-time information, receiving encrypted bits of information as opposed to huge chunks of data snapshots. As a Microsoft shop, the systems are multi-tier, which allows him to encapsulate all the business processes within the middle tier. “We leave the front end to be very thin, so that processing takes place in the middle tier, and make the process even quicker,” he explains. Further, the districts only submit changes to files rather than uploading entire hard drives for no reason.

“I believe other states thinking along these lines would be better off using our architecture,” he says.

Pennsylvania’s Leadership Initiatives

This April, Pennsylvania’s Department of Education ripped a page from Innes, Ireland’s attempt to transform its town. Officials came back from the Emerald Isle jazzed with the possibility of creating an entirely digital district -- not just a wired building ready for classroom instruction, but a school system’s way of managing itself, including administrative and transportation components. The legislature funded $10 million over two years to experiment with this radical idea, and awarded contracts to three districts: Quaker Valley, Carlyle, and Spring Cove.

It’s but the latest in a series of steps Governor Tom Ridge has initiated in his state. For instance, the Link to Learn program -- a common program structure to acquire technology and connection points -- enters its sixth year with a twist. After noticing that many dollars went to fund the higher grades, says Dorothy Hajdu, distance learning and technology coordinator in Pennsylvania’s DOE, the fund now targets grades three through five to ensure no one is left behind.

That goal also includes administrators. Thanks to a study by the University of Pittsburgh, education officials discovered the common thread between thriving technology users wasn’t wealth, urban location, or an enviable student-to-computer ratio. “Technology advancement, by far, depends on leadership,” says Julie Tritt, director of the Office of Education. “These are the people who handle a budget and make decisions, so they need to learn the total cost of ownership, not waste cash on mere computers.”

In the summer of 2000, the Technology Leadership Academy, as the department dubbed it, invited 100 superintendents to attend 12-hour workshops (not to mention evening cyberpub get-togethers for informal training), learning from a laptop computer wirelessly connected to the Internet and to all other superintendents. Over four days these leaders took in the best educational resource Websites, Power Point presentations, Excel spreadsheets, Internet search skills, and even e-mail fine points.

Attendees described it as the best conference they ever attended, and began consciously to align technology more closely to the curricula in their districts. Based on this success, Pennsylvania has expanded the program to include training for all 3,500 principals, 1,000 charter school directors, 400 superintendents, and 900 private school administrators. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is expected to contribute nearly $5 million to supplement the state’s funding.

Such partnering is at the heart of any program’s success, Tritt notes. “Workforce development issues bring companies like 3Com, Oracle, and Palm to your side,” she says. Additionally, Pennsylvania hired someone specifically to concentrate on and take advantage of the more complicated federal E-rate funding opportunities. The pay-off: $200 million.

“Make chasing potential resources a priority,” she advises.

Julie Sturgeon is a frequent contributor to School Planning & Management.