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Creating an Effective Virtual School Program

Administrators are sold on virtual schools-but get bogged down in execution. Here's what creates successful district programs.

Julie Young, president and CEO of Florida Virtual School in Orlando, is all smiles over the latest Advanced Placement test results that show Florida Virtual School has once again outscored both the state and nation, even though it works with many underserved students in the Sunshine State.

For example, in AP calculus, FLVS students' mean score for 2006 was 3.39, compared to 2.81 for the state, out of a top score of 5. And AP English literature and composition results showed a mean score of 3.03, compared to 2.63 for the state.

"Cutting edge is a good description for us now," says Young.

In fact, virtual schools could be the hottest trend in U.S. education today. Twenty-four states offer virtual school programs, which account for more than 500,000 courses, according to the D.C.-based North American Council for Online Learning's latest report. And statistics show a steady 30 percent enrollment growth annually, according to NACOL president and CEO Susan Patrick.

Connections Academy, which is based in Baltimore and provides courses for K10 virtual public schools, geared up to serve nearly 8,000 students in 10 states this school year-a 100 percent jump in enrollment from last year. Likewise, the Florida Virtual School-often considered the guru of this niche-suddenly faces a 60 percent increase in students this year. It's a good news-bad news scenario: helping more students is its mission, but growing enrollment numbers mean a need for more trained instructors and more courses down the line.

"Across the board you have without a doubt a technological movement in this country," says John G. Flores, CEO of the United States Distance Learning Association in Boston. "Distance learning is not only impacting education reform and education change, but more importantly it's giving students new options they've never had before."

Patrick claims only 30 percent of chemistry teachers have all the qualifications to teach in their field, and there aren't enough foreign language teachers to go around.

Online learning allows students anywhere to access teachers who are out of their zip code, and it also opens up course work to the homeschool crowd. Some administrators say students enroll because their families want to travel, and virtual school education becomes the means to enable this. Virtual schools also offer advanced courses that are not available in the brick-and-mortar buildings in some districts.

But such kudos for online learning these days amount to preaching to the choir-K12 administrators instead are eager to know how to take those first steps into cyberspace to ensure they have a high quality program for students.

Initial Choices

The choices begin immediately. If a district's state offers a statewide virtual school, individual districts may register for that. Districts can also partner with nonprofit providers, or for-profit curriculum providers such as Atlanta-based AMDG, Inc. or Connections Academy, most of which allow administrators either to buy a license that allows their own staff to teach the virtual lessons or tap into the company-hired instructors.

If a district enrolls a student in an online course that is sponsored by its statewide virtual school, the school pays tuition, ranging from $100 to a few hundred dollars per student every semester. Or if there is no virtual school, a regional or school-based virtual school could either develop a locally funded virtual school or try to obtain legislative funding from its state. Rules vary from state to state, says Liz Pape, CEO of the Virtual High School in Massachusetts. Course licenses range from $15,000 per semester for a district to $50,000 for a statewide license, which would be paid by the regional or school-based virtual school.

This is an improvement over the Wild West that Greg Morse, chairman of AMDG Inc., first encountered a decade ago. Morse recalls that when early adopters didn't have online courses to use, they launched Web sites that were essentially trading repositories that allowed administrators to take a course. Then they'd have to submit two of their own. The systems had no real oversight and featured a variety of writing methods, so styles could change in the middle of a lesson. Several companies now provide clear, concise lessons aligned to state standards and district curricula, depending on the state and district.

"There was a rush just to put some stuff online, and it was well-intended but wasn't getting the job done," Morse says. "Today it's much more sophisticated."

Certainly that's the world Tom Scullen, superintendent of the Appleton Area School District in Appleton, Wis., discovered when he ventured into virtual schools. Thanks to the curriculum quantities for sale now, administrators can run a high school program with very little preparation. "We've found that private companies are better prepared than we are to write curriculum," he says.

Districts starting from scratch would need to budget hundreds of hours to find, for example, digital library resources online, and then check for broken links when sites go out of business or move their Web addresses. Indeed, the initial development of a course is just the tip of the iceberg, Young says. "All the big publishers that sell curriculum to districts have armies of people working to keep their digital library sources constant," Morse says.

Which Curriculum to Use

When choosing curriculum, follow these guidelines:

Be sure the curriculum is accredited by a respected body, such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), the Commission on International and Trans-Regional Accreditation (CITA), or the Global Accreditation Center (GAC).

Be sure the curriculum meets state standards, or at least comes darn close. "I don't know any [curriculum] that is 100 percent perfect," as state guidelines can be extremely detailed, Morse warns. On the other hand, states demonstrate at least an 80 percent alignment in a given content area, so most courses need minute tweaking to meet standards, Patrick adds.

Follow the 11 guidelines in Southern Regional Education Board's Standards for Quality Online Courses booklet published in November 2006. SREB collects, compiles and analyzes comparable data for key education issues. The guidelines include such advice as having the course include a complete overview and syllabus, and having it organized into units and lessons using multiple strategies and activities to assess student readiness for its content.

Provide a dedicated team of professionals to supervise continuity among courses.

Choose curriculum that is compatible with the district's support system. "A lot of districts are buying courses right now, but once they buy them, what is their ability to support them? I question that in some instances," Morse says.

"They have to know how to create interactivity and discussion, because they can't see who is squirming in their seat, who has their head down, who has their hand up." -Gabe Pascarella, assistant director of coordinated studies, Chesterfield County Public Schools, Richmond, Va.

After the course passes such checkpoints, Morse combs for more clues. For instance, check beyond the syllabus to understand why the course was created, to ensure its lessons match what your district needs to teach students on the subject, and browse through the attached student chat rooms to consider how well the teachers encourage thoughtful communication.

For Gabe Pascarella, assistant director of coordinated studies for the Chesterfield County Public Schools in Richmond, Va., these tips meant he wound up both purchasing and creating his own courses. He purchased courses with narrow focuses such as Pearl Harbor or women of the 21st century, which did not draw many students, but more importantly, he developed in-house broader curricula such as algebra, health and fitness using a standard multimedia platform, which draw on a much wider base of students.

Online Teacher Support

Partnering with a third party to provide content certainly solves some start-up hurdles; however, simply asking students to enroll at a Web site-and wishing them good luck with the course-doesn't ensure a successful virtual program. It's up to district administrators to ensure the highest level of excellence when it comes to interaction between the online teacher and student.

The biggest myth, of course, is that a good classroom teacher can automatically become a good online instructor. But just as you can't take text from the traditional classroom, throw it online and call it a course, neither can you put teachers into this setting without proper training. In many cases, they need to have learned how to work online. Universities such as Villanova and Wisconsin have degrees and certificate programs based on the principles and practices of distance learning. But real change needs to take place in the teachers' mindsets.

"They have to learn they are no longer standing and delivering," Pascarella says. "They have to know how to create interactivity and discussion, because they can't see who is squirming in their seat, who has their head down, who has their hand up."

Pascarella models the traits he expects from virtual school teachers by asking questions and providing details of each student. In essence, Pascarella gives them the details and attention he expects teachers to give their students. For example, Pascarella provides the teachers details on each student's academic strengths and weaknesses and what needs to be accomplished in the course. He sends teachers regular e-mails asking them how things are going, to let teachers know he hasn't forgotten them.

Finding the Right Online Teacher

Meanwhile, NACOL is working on a project to define online teaching criteria, which should be available in June, with an endorsement program for teachers to follow, Patrick says. Until then, she recommends districts use the baseline information of online teaching criteria available from SREB.

Young begins by hiring the right kind of teacher from the get-go. She wants adults who can engage with students and parents, so she hired one instructional leader who does nothing but interview and hire FLVS instructional staff.

Most of Young's candidates come from FLVS staff referrals. And Young attends several hundred educational events every year, which is another way to meet potential instructors. "We've built a reputation as a professional organization, so recruitment hasn't been all that necessary," Young adds.

"We look for teachers who base their success on the success of their students and do not believe in a bell curve." -Julie Young, president and CEO, Florida Virtual School

"We look for teachers who base their success on the success of their students and do not believe in a bell curve," she adds. On a practical level, online teachers must work well under flexible boundaries-after all, some students prefer to work nights and weekends, so teachers who insist on only keeping traditional hours would likely not fit the job well. FLVS requires its instructors to be on call from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. year round. Teachers may be available either by phone (each instructor must have a published cell phone number or a pager) or e-mail during this time. Teachers must also be available over weekends in the same ways. To make it easier, FLVS provides all instructors with a cell phone allowance.

Young also won't hire anyone with less than three years' experience. Certification in more than one area or subject is another strong plus.

Morse is subtle in his interview psychology. He'll talk with interested candidates in person while in the field, but he uses the telephone to formally interview folks-so he can discover how they interact with someone they can't see.

On Site-Virtual Courses

When Scullen started working with Connections Academy, he assigned his teachers to teach the curriculum rather than pay to use Connections Academy's staff. But while he saved money on that front, he insisted the teachers for the virtual courses report to teach in a physical building every day during the same hours as their traditional classroom peers. He knew physical proximity was a great way to partner virtual teachers and classroom teachers when problems or questions popped up.

The plan reaped positive outcomes. Because a virtual school can represent a big culture change, especially for a small town like Appleton, an actual building, compared to a school with no walls, ensures better buy-in from parents. It also lends itself well to teacher exchanges, where classroom and online instructors periodically switch places for a day-the virtual teacher walks into a classroom and the classroom teacher works online with virtual students. The strategy exposes both the virtual and traditional teachers to a broader gamut of teaching styles.

Scullen estimates more than 12 legislators and 15 superintendents have dropped in to study his virtual school model; he claims no one has walked away feeling the program wasn't fundamentally sound and useful.

"We thought early on that once we got this up and running, we'd look at letting teachers work from home. But our teachers unanimously feel this is the better way to go," he says.

Evidence-based Practices for Mentors

Since launching its online school nearly five years ago, the Chicago Public Schools has revamped its mentor role. In the fall of 2002, the district offered online courses to 188 students in 35 schools, and 60 percent passed. But in the spring of 2003, only half of the 323 students across 47 schools ended up passing. Another year passed with similar numbers and Sharnell Jackson, chief e-learning officer at CPS, began searching for answers.

Jackson quickly discovered that teacher training was all well and good, but mentors also needed training in evidence-based practices before the onset of the course. For online courses, mentors must physically sit in the lab with those students who use a class period and the school computers for an online course. A mentor then becomes the first help line should a teacher (who is off-site) not hear from a student in several days. And mentors ensure any textbooks used in the course are available in the room. If students are failing, mentors can advise them on time management or arrange additional interactive whiteboard sessions with the online teacher.

"We thought that once we got this up and running, we'd look at letting teachers work from home. But our teachers unanimously feel this is the better way to go."
-Tom Scullen, superintendent of schools, Appleton Area School District, Appleton, Wis..

Training must cover:

roles and responsibilities among virtual school mentors/instructors;

protocols for communication

the online course environment;

student learning contexts;

accommodations for students who are at risk as online learners;

building relationships that recognize the mentor's special role in assisting at-risk, online students.

This system helped bring about an 82 percent pass rate last school year among the 318 students taking online courses at 50 schools. It's great news for the mentors, who receive a stipend based on student success. "You just have to observe what's going on, what works and what doesn't," Jackson says. "I used it in the education program at a juvenile detention center. They had a 100 percent pass rate. I say if this works in a jail, it will work anywhere."


Young believes in feedback. Her performance management system, born 10 years ago as a simple Lotus database and now a state-of-the-art Internet application, spits out the numbers she requires to monitor, analyze and evaluate teachers' work.

Such feedback taught her, for example, to require that teachers make a monthly call to students and parents to discuss progress, even if a student is doing well.

Morse reviews chat sessions, peeks at group projects online, and listens in on finals in foreign languages given via telephone. And he expects instructors to prepare individual student reports that review quizzes, homework and tests every week. They must also offer a thoughtful narrative about how a student is doing. "If the teacher writes that little Johnny is fine, that little Johnny is fine every week, we're going to say, 'What is going on here?'" Morse says. "That teacher ought to be picking out things Johnny can improve."

Julie Sturgeon is a contributing editor to District Administration.