Julie Young: Virtual education on verge of ‘ubiquitous’

Julie Young

Julie Young

Julie Young announced earlier this year that she would be stepping down as the head of Florida Virtual School, after more than 30 years in public education. Her announcement reverberated in education circles around the country, where she was recognized as a pioneer in her field and the “godmother of digital learning.”

I sat down to talk with her about the early days of virtual education, the lessons she learned while it grew, and what the future might hold both for digital learning as a whole and for the institution she led for 17 years. The interview formed the basis of my profile of Young, which was published on redefinED Monday.

So the first thing I’m wondering is, why now?

I started thinking about it about a year and half ago. I started hinting to the team about a year and a half ago … I just had something inside of me going, ‘Ok, we’ve done this. It’s in a really good place, and together this team has had the opportunity to have a huge impact on the field of education, and really the world of learning, and now what?’ I was asking myself the same questions and just feeling like there was something I wanted to do, and didn’t know what it was.

I’m really the type of person that when I’m in the middle of something, I’m all in. And so even thinking about it, for me, felt like blasphemy. I didn’t feel like I could explore other opportunities. I didn’t feel like it was the right thing to be thinking that while I was still totally engaged as CEO.

Looking out across the education landscape in Florida, there’s a lot of things that were maybe tried out 15 or 20 years ago that are now reaching maturity. What do you see in the virtual realm that are these signs of maturity – where FLVS can kind of grow on its own?

When we started, virtual education was this thing over here that was, I think, in many respects, to be feared by many. Intriguing to the business community, very intriguing to parents, but feared by the education community. When I look at it now, and I think about where we are, and I see that the school districts have their franchises and they’ve embraced virtual learning for their students – whether they’re using us to provide that or whether they’re using their own programs – to me really indicates that very soon, it’s going to be ubiquitous. Very soon, we’re not going to be asking kids, ‘Are you taking a course online?’ It’s just going to be, ‘I’m taking English,’ and people aren’t going to be paying attention to whether it’s English online or English in the classroom. And we’re there at the post-secondary level.

In addition, I think that the onset and the acceptance of the full-time virtual programs and the proliferation of those have really given students and families that additional opportunity, beyond Florida Virtual School, or within Florida Virtual School, to get a diploma.

I think you reach a point where there’s no turning back, and I think that we’re there. I think it’s going to look different every year. … Our student base – the students we serve – (is) potentially shrinking, and the district’s service (is) potentially growing, which really indicates that it’s permeating the status quo, so that we don’t have to do it all by ourselves. But we should look for the total population of virtual education in the state of Florida to be growing. And I think what Florida Virtual School’s value and niche going forward is and should continue to be is that we will continue to look for new ways to deliver virtual education, where we can work with students to determine, what’s the next thing? What’s the next learning opportunity that we haven’t thought of yet? We’ll be able to then move those ideas out into the masses as well.

I want to go back to the beginning. I’m trying to remember 1997.

How old were you? (laughs)

I was in fourth grade, in Seminole County. We would go to the media center and we would play Oregon Trail on an Apple IIGS. You couldn’t even install software, much less connect to the Internet. And you all had this idea that kids were actually going to go to school online? What made you think that you could take that leap of faith?

I cannot take credit for the initial idea that we were going to take that leap of faith, because Orange County wrote the concept paper. The teacher that helped to write that concept paper just passed away last month. She was the first teacher – Linda Hayes. She developed our first computer science courses, and she actually went to the superintendent of Orange County at the time and said, ‘You know, if I can teach this online.’ The Internet was in its infancy and she was developing these modules for use in her classroom, because she could. And she said, ‘If I could take this out online, I could teach kids in other schools.’ They had a shortage of computer science teachers at the time. That’s where the original idea in Orange County came from for the grant. I was the really lucky person who came in to implement it. It was a dual grant, if you recall. Alachua County had written a grant too, and their focus was on the rural communities and being able to deliver to the rural communities.

I think, as with many innovations, this one initially came about as an answer to a need, as a solution to a problem. And so the idea of whether or not it was going to run fast, or it was going to be whiz-bang and beautiful, was less important at the time as it was that we could deliver the education in a different way to kids who weren’t getting it.

I think my vision at the time probably came from the traditional classrooms I was in, with instructional technology and with IBM. I had the opportunity to see the technology advancing for several years before I started to do this. You could see a bit into the future, and know that it was coming.

It seems like you entered a new phase when Florida Virtual School Started receiving per-pupil funding. When that happened, did that create new tensions, or did that put you in competition with the school districts in some ways?

Initially, when we started, (Education Commissioner) Frank Brogan was the one who really designed the (concept of funding FLVS as its own line-item in the state budget), at a time when the state had some additional money on hand. His thought was that Florida Virtual School would have the opportunity to really be a research and development project, where we could grow, make some mistakes, change, fail, start over, really learn how to do what we’re going to do. He basically said, ‘Go make it up, and tell us how it should be done.’ So we really had about four years that I think in my brain were the research and development years.

His goal was that this would be an opportunity to do that without being a threat to the districts. And so by the time that we would have to become a per-pupil-funded program, because everyone eventually assumed we would, that we would have had that opportunity to become a quality program that people knew and believed in, and that through the grassroots movement of our students and our parents who were using us, that we would be a known commodity in the state of Florida, and we would have taken root – which is exactly what happened.

(After FLVS started receiving funds through a system similar to the school districts) there was really a nice balance, because most kids were taking (online classes) after school or in the summer anyway at the time. They were kind of trying it, too, and they had as much concern about risking a credit as the school did about losing the dollars. So we did have tension with some districts. And some districts really embraced it.

So how were those tensions, sort of inherent in what you were doing, affected by some of the changes last session?

Well, the tensions were stronger in the beginning. We had some (districts) that said we don’t want our kids to try this because we’re afraid that we’re going to like it. But it seemed like what happened is, about 2008 when everything crashed, there were all kinds of reasons for school districts to embrace us, because we could provide opportunities for them, and financial savings for them at the time, that otherwise they would not have had at the time …

We were starting to really work with the districts as a customer. We had gotten, I feel like, by 2011, in a really good place with the districts, where they were using us for the credit recovery kids. They were using us for some of the gifted programs as they were having to cut some of their programs. They were expanding their Advanced Placement programs. They were using us for class size solutions. They had really started to embrace Florida Virtual School as partner and a solution. We were in a really good place.

Then last year, not this session but the session before, when the discussion came about of changing the funding model so it was now a shared funding model so that with every additional course a student took everybody got less, the districts were not on board for that. They obviously were highly opposed to that, because that was kind of a new wrinkle where everybody lost, regardless of when the student took the course, if they took it outside the school …

… So that really put us more at odds, I believe, with the school districts than ever before. Even than in the early days. But you can’t fault them. They’d gotten used to really using us in a strategic way. It was really working well. It was very symbiotic at the time.

One of the things that seemed to be driving that change last year was, I heard some people talking about ending the “semi-monopoly” that Florida Virtual School had. When you all were starting out, you were kind of going it alone, but now there are all these new providers that have cropped up in the intervening years. Does that change the role of Florida Virtual School at all?

The competitors were there. The funding model was different for us than it was for them. So we had the advantage of students being able to come to us during the summer or after school and be funded. They did not. The interesting thing about the change in the funding model is I do think that some of the competitors championed that funding model for the reason that you’ve described, of breaking up the semi-monopoly. … Now the challenge, I think, with the new funding model is that rather than a carrot for the school districts to encourage their students to utilize virtual learning for lots of different reasons, there’s actually a stick to discourage the districts to encourage the kids to use Florida Virtual School – or any of these other providers that are outside the school day.

In many respects, the providers that it helped were the content providers that simply wanted to get the content into the school districts – for the school districts to simply use their content, maybe, instead of ours, to teach their own students. If the private providers were actually providing the instruction, they were now in the same situation we were, where the school districts would discourage the students from utilizing anything outside their school.

I think the challenge nationwide with virtual education has been focusing the conversation on the student’s needs and the educational gain and benefit for kids, as opposed to who gets the money. In the early stages of the financial debacle, in ’08, ’09 and ’10, so many of the national conversations were around how can we get it cheaper. Those conversations have now shifted back to the quality.

The groups who we often think about as being the ideal Florida Virtual students are the ones who are trying to get accelerated, and want to get ahead, or the ones who maybe are behind. Is that accurate?

… When you get to the average students or the students who are challenged in a particular area, it’s really about the opportunity to spend more time on whichever topics or skills that those kids need to spend.

You might have a student who finishes within the semester, but rather than spend 90 hours on their course, they’ve spent 130 hours on their course. But they’ve been able to work with their teacher on the evening and the weekends and put more time into the learning experience rather than just go slower. I think that’s a really important distinction. Pace comes really into play, too, with the kids who are doing the extracurricular type things – if they’re following their dreams to be an actor, an entertainer, an athlete, those types of students. They’ll do a whole bulk of work in a month and then you won’t see them for 2 or 3 weeks while they’re training.

Being able to have that flexibility is really difficult for the schools to offer them. It has to do (in part) with the fact that when they come and go like that, and they’ve got a whole classroom of kids to deal with, just the workload of the teacher to coordinate all that is quite difficult.

Where did the idea for the competency-based model come from? Was that inspired at all by what you saw in the IBM days?

That was a shared vision. I was the Orange County principal and there was a principal in Alachua. We both agreed based on how the grants were written that the mastery-based component was going to be a key element of Florida Virtual School going forward, with the idea that every student is different. And if you did not have the constraints of classroom building and a place and a time and a calendar, imagine what you could actually do with kids on a 1-on-1 basis. And one of the things I like to emphasize a lot to people is that when kids are behind in 10th grade, they didn’t get behind in 10th grade. They got behind in third grade and in fourth grade. And it’s at that key moment when a child is not mastering a concept that we either take the time to make sure that they have the fundamentals, or we move them on, they don’t have the fundamentals, and it’s like taking a brick out of a foundation. Eventually you take too many bricks out, and the foundation’s going to fall.

So in that kind of environment, is there a different kind of teacher? Are there certain kinds of attributes that you need to look for when you’re working without those constraints?

… What we knew right off the bat was that one of the most important elements of a teacher for us had to be that internal need of that teacher to build relationships with the kids, and that desire for the student to be successful. It’s hard to learn that sometimes in an interview. When you looked at who we were initially, it was really very much of a startup. If you’re signing up for this, you’re the only math teacher. We don’t have a sub for you. So vacations were really difficult. Having babies was very difficult. Getting sick was very difficult. We would all cover classes. I would cover classes. We would all cover for each other. But the teachers really had to have the mentality of a partner starting a business: “I’m all in.”

And, oh by the way, if your kids are not successful, we don’t get paid. So that really changed the mentality. We talked a lot about the fact that, just because you show up you don’t get paid at Florida Virtual School. In essence the teachers did get paid, but if they had a two-year period of time where they had a significant number of students who were not successful, we would take a really clear look at whether this was the right environment for them …

… If you’re a student-centered organization, the question is, what do you have to do differently so that they want to learn it? Because if they want to learn it, it doesn’t matter if you taught it till you’re blue in the face, you didn’t do your job and you weren’t successful. That’s a whole shift in the mentality of years and years ago, where you might hear a teacher talk about the number of students who fail their class. And it wasn’t unusual that you might hear a teacher say only 30 percent of the kids pass my class, and that was a badge of honor. Whereas at Florida Virtual School it was like, look, if you really can give the student the time and the attention and that personalized instruction that can work for them, is there really any reason why any student should fail? You have all the time in the world. Is there any reason why any student should fail?

There were some teachers that had a difficult time coping with it. And there were other teachers that it was very, very freeing. And they really felt like, as a high school teacher, that it freed them up to make sure that kids learned the math they loved. They didn’t have to push the kids out because the school year was over. They were actually able to teach them.

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