By Marc Freeman, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Five-year-olds entering public school for the first time this year can get a complete, computer-based education without leaving home.
As early as kindergarten, Broward and Palm Beach County students can bypass traditional schools by enrolling in full-time virtual school programs. And they can take it all the way to high school graduation.
Mostly for convenience, South Florida families in growing numbers are choosing state-sanctioned online instruction over classrooms, commuting and even home-schooling.
In fact, Florida ranked first among all states last year in online education policies and programs, according to a report from the Center for Digital Education, a California-based research group. Nearly 60,000 Florida students took virtual courses.
“To me it is the best thing they could have come up with,” said Raquel Pelaez, of Plantation, whose sons Jonathan and Ricardo are in the eighth and 12th grades of Broward Virtual School. “It’s like I’m sending my kids to a private school and the county’s paying for it.”
Officials project that 310 public middle and high school students will take all of their classes online this year, with 200 other students choosing to supplement their traditional or home-school studies with virtual courses. Their teachers work for the county’s virtual school, based in Davie. Broward Virtual School contracts with Florida Virtual School for its middle and high school courses. Florida Virtual operates out of Orlando.
A different virtual program is provided for Broward elementary students. K12 Inc.’s Florida Virtual Program, run out of Jacksonville, serves 21 Broward elementary students on a full-time basis. This is a new offering for local families.
To be sure, most of Broward’s 250,000 students still are taught the traditional way, through on-campus instruction. Some educators think students gain more from classroom interaction and socializing than from working on a computer for hours.
“Face-to-face instruction is always better than virtual instruction,” said Karen Whetsell, principal of Don Estridge High Tech Middle School in Boca Raton. Online offerings are expanding this year in Palm Beach County.
Whetsell says there’s plenty of value in online courses, noting that some of her students have taken Chinese, which is not offered on campus.
“It’s always about what’s best for the individual student,” Whetsell said.
This year, a federally funded report stated that online learning beats face-to-face teaching for acquiring knowledge among higher- and career-education students, according to research studies. But it’s unclear whether this is true for the K-12 population, according to the evaluation for the U.S. Department of Education.
What is certain is that each year more of the nation’s public school students enroll in a technology-based distance-education course, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. One million students took online courses in the 2007-08 school year, the federal report noted.
The number of K-12 virtual learners in Florida is expected to increase steadily. A 2008 state law requires Florida students for this school year to have access to full-time virtual classes covering all subjects and grades, taught by certified teachers. New kindergarten virtual students this year must have attended a state run pre-kindergarten class last year. Parents increasingly will be drawn to the flexible schedules, accelerated course work, quality of instruction and constant access to teachers, administrators say. And there are opportunities for face time through group projects, extracurricular activities at neighborhood schools, certain tests — even the prom.
“It’s going to be a lifesaver for a lot of kids,” said Christopher McGuire, principal of Broward Virtual School, which serves grades 6 through 12.
Parents must commit to serving as “learning coaches,” especially for younger students, to monitor their children’s work. Teachers stay in regular contact with their students to ensure they are doing the work and not getting help from siblings or others.
Full-time virtual education is best for students who are self-motivated, like working at their own pace and don’t mind being apart from their classmates, McGuire said.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “It’s a tremendous level of responsibility.”
Broward Virtual has issued 250 diplomas since 2004, and the school says 93 percent of sophomores passed last year’s FCAT writing test, far better than the county and state figures.
“Our kids do better than their peers in the bricks-and-mortar schools,” said McGuire, who directs prospective students and their families to the website, bved.net.
Ricardo Pelaez, 18, is a senior who has been a virtual student since starting high school.
“You just have to be disciplined and do your work,” said Pelaez, who uses a laptop computer with a high-speed Internet connection. “If I work quickly, I have the rest of the day to myself.”
That work ethic is typical of virtual students, said Delores Sallette, a Broward Virtual School teacher who teaches middle school comprehensive science and ninth-grade earth space science.
Sallette, who works from her Fort Lauderdale home, uses e-mail and phone and computer programs to communicate with her 125 students. But she also sees many of them at voluntary “School Days,” when students meet twice monthly in Davie for lab work.
“The students are excited about what they are doing and they know they are on the cutting edge of where education is going,” she said.