The school day for gymnast Tyler Harriman begins shortly after 6 a.m. He squeezes in two hours of classes online before heading to the gym for a full day of practice. When he returns home at 5 p.m., Tyler said, “I eat dinner, take a shower and go and do school until about 10 p.m.”
The 16-year-old is one of more than 300 full-time students at the Miami-Dade Online Academy, the only Dade public school offering a “virtual” education from kindergarten through 12th grade.
Going to school online offers him flexibility that traditional classes don’t provide — but adds new demands.
“I have alarms on my phone with the name of each class,” Tyler said — a personal school bell that helps him keep track of courses and ensures he logs enough time in each of them.
Dr. Ludy Lopez, the school’s administrator, said a top priority is making sure that virtual students keep pace with regular ones. While class times are flexible, virtual students start the semester simultaneously with Miami-Dade public schools and have to keep up with their courses. Students in kindergarten through third grade must take 20 hours of instruction a week and fourth through 12th grade must put in 30 hours.
“We run this ship very strict,” Lopez said as she and her staff were sifting through 600 applications this summer for the upcoming school year.
Florida has embraced online learning in a big way with the largest virtual school system in the country. Upward of 200,000 students take at least one online course — more than double the next-closest state, North Carolina — a surge driven by a 2011 Florida law, the Digital Learning Act, requiring at least one online course to graduate.
While online course offerings continue to expand across the country, there are continuing questions about their effectiveness.
An analysis comparing the English and math FCAT scores of students taking ninth-grade English and algebra I in Florida Virtual School to those in traditional schools found the online students did as well as the others, but the years studied ended with 2008-2009, when enrollment in a virtual course was still voluntary. Other studies suggest the classes work well for highly motivated students, less well for others. There also have been high dropout rates nationwide.
Earlier this year, three universities were awarded a $1.6 million federal grant to assess Florida’s virtual school system.
“There are enormous gaps in the research literature on online schools,” Brian Jacob, co-director of the University of Michigan's Education Policy Initiative, said in a press release. He will join a team from the University of California-Davis and Stanford University for the three-year study focusing on FLVS and Miami-Dade public schools.
Susanna Loeb, faculty director for Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, said the team will examine data of traditional and online students in Florida through 2014-15 and “explore how access to online courses affects students’ test scores, course grades and progression.”
While some students like Harriman are doing it all online, the vast majority take an online course as part of their regular school day.
Broward County’s Virtual School, a pioneer in virtual education with an A rating, teaches more than 300 students in grades K-12. But Principal Chris McGuire said the state mandate to give every high school student an online experience has recently shifted its focus “driven specifically by the graduation requirement of an online course.”
“For 2012-13 we served over 9,000 students, and this year it is up to 12,000 or 13,000 students,” McGuire said. “We went from 25 teachers to 80 teachers in two years,” McGuire added.
Generally, the students take virtual classes at their school. McGuire said he contracts with Florida Virtual School, the publicly funded statewide provider, for coursework but hires all of his teachers from South Florida.
Miami-Dade has set up what are called “virtual labs” in each high school, using online teachers from Florida Virtual School. Sylvia Diaz, the Miami-Dade assistant superintendant responsible for school innovation, said each lab includes a monitor to help keep students focused on task and once a month the virtual teachers come to the labs in person.
“A lot of what makes kids unsuccessful is their not keeping pace,” Diaz said.
Peter Ho Tung, Dade’s liaison with FLVS, said the most popular classes last year were foreign languages, personal fitness and driver’s ed, a simulated course to prepare 15-year-olds for their learner’s permit.
In Broward, the most popular course is called HOPE, in which students develop their own fitness plan including exercise and diet. At Miramar and Cypress Bay high schools, HOPE is a blended class in which students do their coursework on computer part of the week and dress out and exercise on other days, McGuire said.
“Every school is set up totally different,” said Felicia Brunson, the FLVS liaison with Miami-Dade County. “Some might use us for world history because they don’t have a teacher for that course, some schools consistently use us for foreign language, some for government and economics for their seniors, some use us strictly for the ninth-graders.”
“In the old way of thinking, kids were subject to whatever the school had to offer,” McGuire said, noting that he is able to hire experts to teach Advanced Placement courses such as AP macro economics, AP art history, and AP environmental science.
In Dade, Ho Tung estimates several hundred middle-schoolers are taking physical science, biology I and algebra I online to qualify for certain high school magnet programs.
For gymnast Harriman, high school math is one of the toughest subjects to learn online. He wishes there were workbooks to help reinforce the concepts.
“I think the hardest part is you have to read material and learn it for yourself,” Harriman said. “It’s also the easiest part because you get to read it over and over again if you don’t understand it.’’
Partly to familiarize kids with online tools and also to level the playing field, HP tablets were handed out to Dade students this year to use in seventh-grade civics and ninth-grade world history. In the new school year, eighth-graders will use tablets in U.S. history class and 10th-graders will get tablets to take home for language arts, Ho Tung said.
It’s not just public schools tapping into online education. “We have virtual labs in charter schools and private schools,” said Brunson, the FLVS liaison.
“Especially now with the state mandate, what we’re seeing is a lot of the home-schooling parents are recognizing” that their children need to be proficient online, Brunson said. “If they’re going to college, they’re going to need it.”
Virtual by the numbers
Statistics from the 2013-14 school year
Miami-Dade County: 29,980 part-time students; 346 full-time students
Broward County: 18,357 part-time students; 352 full-time students
Statewide: 73 percent public school; 21 percent home-schooled; 6 percent private school.
Source: Florida Virtual School
Miami-Dade Online Academy: mdo.dadeschools.net
Broward Virtual School: www.broward.k12.fl.us/bved/
Florida Virtual School: http://www.flvs.net