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Virtually Possible

Diane Lewis busts myths as champion of Seminole County’s virtual schools.
Seminole County Public Schools' administrators celebrate with their first virtual school graduate, Gabrielle Stutz, in June 2010.

Diane Lewis began building her popular virtual education program in a storage closet. The drab room, just big enough to squeeze in a tiny table, was her office at the headquarters of Seminole County (Fla.) Public Schools. She had a computer and a small staff of temporary workers. “We had pretty much no money, no people, no space,” recalls Lewis, director of instructional technology for the district. “One of the myths is, if you’re virtual, people don’t think you require anything.”

Lewis, who managed to open two successful virtual schools for Seminole County last year, has emerged as a guru of online education. Speaking with the zeal of a preacher and the authority of an educator, she has traveled the world touting the virtues of technology and busting myths about cyberlearning. In 2008, the Florida Legislature ordered all of the state’s school districts to start at least one virtual school; the state has been running its own, Florida Virtual School, since 1997, serving students worldwide.

Diane Lewis, the director of instructional technology, in Seminole County (Fla.) Public Schools

While the Sunshine State is considered a leader in online education, the phenomenon has spread nationwide. Today, an estimated 1.5 million schoolchildren in the United States are taking online courses, and the number is expected to continue growing 30 percent annually, according to the nonprofit International Association for K-12 Online Learning. “Virtual school is an incredibly important option for today’s kids,” Lewis told a group of superintendents at the District Administration Leadership Summit last fall. “A lot of kids don’t fit the mold anymore of four walls and a clock.”

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan unveiled the National Education Technology Plan last November, which acknowledges the changing needs of 21st-century students. The ambitious plan, which seeks to transform education through technology by 2015, includes expanding virtual options. “To reach the goals of our technology plan,” Duncan said, “we need full-time access to digital content and learning experiences that will empower teachers in brick-and-mortar schools to enrich the curriculum and to personalize learning.”

A Natural Techie

Lewis, 49, grew up in Seminole County, a short drive from Orlando, and attended high school in the same district where she now works. “The principal there now was a teacher when I was there,” Lewis says with a laugh. The daughter of an Air Force veteran and a homemaker, Lewis gravitated toward science as a child. Her biology teacher encouraged her to follow in his footsteps. “At the time, I was like, ‘You’re crazy,’” says Lewis, who ended up with a bachelor’s degree in biology education from the University of Central Florida.

An after school program called ?WOW in School,? teaches leadership, teamwork and curriculum topics such as language arts and mathematics using World of Warcraft, a 3-D game that teaches students while they play.

After graduating in 1982, she took a job teaching science at Lake Mary High School in Seminole County. There was no such thing as the Internet, but Lewis embraced the technology she did have. “There was a natural affinity between science and technology,” says Lewis, who fondly recalls having students in her anatomy class use EKG equipment to measure the electrical activity of the heart. “That’s when I knew I was sold on what technology could do for kids and how it could really extend their learning.”

Lewis taught for eight years before being promoted in 1991 to serve as the district’s science curriculum specialist. She became the technology curriculum specialist three years later, and over the next two decades, her duties alternated between the two areas.

In 2007, Seminole County Superintendent Bill Vogel named Lewis as his director of instructional technology. Vogel, who has led the 65,000-student district since 2003, has made the “three Ts”—technology, teamwork and critical thinking—the cornerstone of his leadership. Lewis is a key player. “She is truly a visionary,” says Vogel, who tapped Lewis to lead the district’s visioning committee in 2007.

The group’s charge was to prepare for the changing landscape of public education. “Part of what bubbled up,” Lewis says, “was an interest and a need for the district to move into virtual education.”

What Worksheets?

Lewis then launched a two-year process to start a pair of virtual schools. The state had mandated a full-time program, but Lewis and her colleagues believed in giving students more flexibility, so they created a second virtual program that operates more as a buffet of courses. This part-time virtual option is particularly popular with home-schooled students. The other main difference in the programs is staffing.

For the full-time school, called the Seminole County Virtual Instruction Program, the company that provides the curriculum, K12, hires and employs the teachers. In the part-time program, dubbed the Seminole County Virtual School, Lewis hires the teachers; the district partners with Florida Virtual School for the curriculum. “I prefer the teachers work for me,” Lewis says. “It’s a better situation for management.”

When choosing teachers, Lewis says she looks for those who will have a passion for helping every student. Although they aren’t face to face with the children, they interact daily—on the phone, over e-mail or in a Webinar. “I think that is one of the biggest myths—that students won’t know their teachers,” Lewis says. “Every one of my teachers will tell you that they know their students better than when they taught face to face. They know their parents. They know their dogs’ names.”

Two virtual school students are thrilled to receive their textbooks and other school materials, for the school year.

Another myth: Virtual school is only for certain types of students. Lewis says advanced and struggling students can both do well, no matter what grade they are in; the state-mandated school serves grades K-12, and the a la carte one is for middle and high school. Students enroll for various reasons: Some are elite athletes who need a more flexible schedule. Others have been bullied. And another set just dislikes traditional brick-and- mortar schools. “I don’t blame them, Lewis says. “If I had to sit in a row and do a worksheet, I think I’d just about die.”

To be clear, not all the work that students do in virtual school is on the computer. They still read paper novels, exercise outside for physical education, and do science labs at, for example, the kitchen table or the family activity room. Joni Fussell, a Seminole County mother whose two daughters, ages 7 and 10, were in the full-time virtual school for the last two years, praises Lewis’ focus on a rigorous curriculum. “You can have a virtual school, but it might be watching YouTube videos,” Fussell says. “I think she’s very committed to making quality educational choices and doing the best for our kids.”

Lewis says she monitors the interaction between students and teachers regularly, reviewing their phone logs and e-mails. If she notices that a student hasn’t logged on for a couple of days, she calls their parents. “The trick,” she says, “is to catch it early.”

In its first year, the full-time virtual school made Adequate Yearly Progress under No Child Left Behind. The a la carte program isn’t rated.

Fewer Distractions

Enrollment in both of the Seminole County virtual programs is growing. The full-time one served 135 students this year, up from 85 last year when it launched. In the part-time program, students completed about 600 courses last year. This year, students are enrolled in about 1,200. With a rolling admissions process, the number increases daily.

Lewis’ staff has grown, too, as has her office. The virtual school headquarters has been moved out of the storage room and to an office with bright green walls, and Lewis now has an assistant principal, an instructional technology specialist and a data clerk. Lewis serves as the director of both virtual schools, but she says the clerk is the most important position—one she lobbied the administration for permission to hire.

Teachers in Seminole County Virtual School often hold faculty meetings in a virtual world called Second Life. (Diane Lewis?s avatar is in the back row, center.)

The virtual schools in Florida receive state funding based on the number of students who successfully complete courses, so it’s critical for a full-time clerk to keep meticulous records. While the virtual and traditional schools get the same amount of money per student, the online programs are at a slight financial disadvantage. They only collect on the children who actually complete the virtual courses; those who drop out or fail don’t count.

Lewis says her program broke even financially after the first year. But she cautions districts with similar funding systems to set aside money to cover the daily costs until the state reimbursement comes.

In June, Seminole County graduated its first student through virtual school. Gabrielle Stutz had enrolled in the summer of 2009, thinking she would breeze through virtual classes and finish her senior year early. The course load ended up being tougher than Stutz expected, but she says she didn’t mind. “I definitely liked virtual schools better,” Stutz says. “I feel like I did better because there was more one-on-one with the teacher instead of having all the students in the class. I didn’t get distracted as much.”

Within five years, Lewis says, she expects to see more students taking a mix of face-to-face and virtual courses. “I think we’re going to be looking at a more blended model,” she says, “similar to what we have on college campuses.”

Ericka Mellon is a K12 education reporter for the Houston Chronicle.