When Willow Tufano left a public school for the gifted three years ago and enrolled in Florida Virtual School, she discovered a doorway to opportunity.
No longer confined to a typical school day, the eighth-grader spent mornings and afternoons combing Craigslist and garage sales for electronics and other items, then sold them for a profit. At night, she studied English and algebra, keeping up her grades and socking away enough cash to buy a house with her mom, a real estate broker.
At 14, Willow became a landlord. Then she saved enough for another house. Two years later, the Palm Island, Fla., teen has sold both houses and is finishing her sophomore year online with Florida Virtual School, earning mostly A’s and B’s, while fielding offers from Hollywood for a reality TV show.
None of those feats likely would have happened, say Willow and her mother, if she couldn’t pick the best learning option for her.
“I’m doing my school work at 2 in the morning instead of 9 a.m.,’’ Willow said. “I really like that flexibility.’’
The story of Willow’s ingenuity has circulated far and wide, from NPR to the Huffington Post to the Ellen DeGeneres Show. What remains largely untold is how education’s fast-changing landscape and, more specifically, the expansion of online learning, helped propel her success.
When Willow needs an afternoon free to show a house or sell something – or meet with an entertainment attorney, like she did recently – she can take it.
“She came home at 6 p.m. and did school work until 1 in the morning,’’ recalled Willow’s mom, Shannon Moore. “That’s what works for us.’’
Florida Virtual School is the nation’s largest public provider of online learning and what former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush recently described as a “national model.’’ The program has grown from 77 enrollments in 1997, when it began, to an award-winning public school district with five schools serving more than 410,000 enrollments.
For nearly two decades, FLVS has been on the forefront of education reform – first as its own entity and, later, partnering with districts for local franchises. It develops most of its own content, using student feedback as a guide.
Willow and her mom liked the program’s credibility. But what really sold them, they said, was its focus on students – their wants and needs.
Despite getting accepted into the Pineview School for the Gifted in Osprey, Fla., Willow, who has ADHD, struggled with her studies. She grew frustrated with attending classes all day, then spending three to four hours a night doing homework.
“We noticed in the seventh grade, it wasn’t working for her,’’ said Moore, a wife and mother of three daughters who all attended public and private schools, and were homeschooled during various years. But at Florida Virtual School, “It seems more individualized.’’
“I can get help through videos, I can text the teacher, email or talk to the teacher on the phone,’’ said Willow. At her old public school, “I would go in before school, during lunch or after school to get help,’’ but it wasn’t easy and it didn’t always come.
For those with special needs, such as Willow, FLVS can be a huge help, spokeswoman Tania Clow said. Students aren’t required to sit for hours on end. They can take frequent breaks and walk around. And they don’t have to take any medication – something Willow and her mom didn’t want to do.
For her second semester, Willow has a full schedule of classes – photography, geometry, English II, earth sciences, world history and Spanish. If she falls behind, which she admits she does occasionally, her mom gets a call from a teacher.
It’s an option that provides oversight, Moore said, but gives her daughter enough leeway to explore her dreams. Every few weeks, Willow travels to Chicago, where she stays with a close friend. She plans, eventually, to attend community college there before returning to Florida to finish her degree – maybe in business at New College in Sarasota, where her older sister attends.
Willow makes her own travel arrangements, spends her own money on plane tickets and is learning to navigate a new city. Those are skills that likely will help her when it comes time to start a new job or some other endeavor, her mom said.
Flexibility with schooling has given her the freedom to master them.
“Not everyone fits in the same box,” Moore said. “There needs to be choices.’’