Florida Virtual School likely to be ‘new normal’ in Sunshine State and beyond

Scott Kent

Florida Virtual School student Maya Washburn, pictured here in Lofoten Islands, Norway, has been able to keep up with her classes from anywhere in the world with her MacBook Air and a reliable WiFi connection.

When she was a junior in high school, Maya Washburn spent six weeks of her fall semester backpacking around Europe with her mother. From England to Sweden, Norway to Slovakia, the Czech Republic to Austria, the Fort Lauderdale teen never missed a day of class back home.

Her classrooms were trains, ferries, coffee shops, restaurants, hotel rooms, and even cabins at campsites. All she required to maintain her studies were her MacBook Air, a reliable WiFi connection – and Florida Virtual School (FLVS).

“It’s been amazing,” said Maya, 17. “I love making my mark on school and on the world. It’s brought out so many passions that I don’t think I ever would’ve discovered or tapped into if I was not a member of this school.”

FLVS may sound like a recent technology, but it dates to when “Seinfeld” was still the nation’s most-watched TV show. Founded in 1997 as the country’s first statewide K-12 virtual public school, Orlando-based FLVS operates as its own school district.

Over its two decades, FLVS students have successfully completed nearly 5 million semester courses, and not just in the Sunshine State – it has served students in all 50 states as well as more than 100 countries and territories around the world. Today, FLVS offers more than 190 courses, from core subjects such as English and Algebra to electives such as Guitar and Creative Photography. FLVS is available to full- and part-time (or “Flex”) students from public, private, charter and homeschool backgrounds.

Because FLVS’s funding is determined by successful course completions rather than time spent in a seat, students, teachers and parents have the flexibility to customize instruction to each student’s needs. Its graduates perform as well as or better than other students in Florida and the nation in most Advanced Placement course exams.

Unlike the scores of students who were forced by COVID-19 to become online learners, Maya went the virtual route willingly – she has been a full-time FLVS student since ninth grade. She will graduate this month with a 4.2 grade point average and has been accepted to the Florida International University Honors College, where she will pursue a pre-law curriculum.

For Maya, it was all about finding the right fit.

She initially attended a public elementary school but was miserable by third grade from being bullied. She transferred to a private school, which was terrific — until it wasn’t. In middle school, she became an outsider in a cliquish environment, and again was bullied.

“I never really fit into any box,” Maya said. “I’ve always marched to my own beat.”

Homeschooling, her first choice, was not an option – she’s the only child of a single mother who was working full time outside the home. So, she took the initiative to research Florida Virtual School. Mother and daughter agreed to give it a try.

Four years later, it has proved to be the right choice.

“FLVS was perfect for me,” Maya said. “I’m very self-disciplined, and FLVS has broadened my horizons in the sense that I directly apply what I learn in my courses to my everyday life, which I live outside of the clear-cut class times that I might have to stick to at a traditional brick-and-mortar school.”

She considers the flexibility and opportunities for growth provided by FLVS the perfect atmosphere for success.

“The learning environment has never been stagnant,” she said. “It’s ever-evolving.”

Maya experienced the usual jitters about adjusting to a new concept of learning. A friend who joined FLVS at the same time soon dropped out and returned to a brick-and-mortar school.

“She needed someone to sit next to every day, I completely get that. We had different learning styles,” Maya said. “It’s not for everyone.”

She acknowledges there was a bit of a learning curve, but otherwise says the transition was “pretty seamless.”

“The teachers are so encouraging and supportive and helpful,” she said. “It’s the best education I’ve ever received.”

Maya Washburn will graduate from Florida Virtual School this month with a 4.2 grade point average.

Although she attends an unconventional school, Maya still enjoys the conventional trappings of a high school social life. She’s belongs to six of the more than 50 clubs FLVS offers: Student Council, Mega News Network (which she helped found), National Honor Society, National English Honor Society, Virge Literary Arts Magazine – oh, and she just started Glee Club this year.

Students meet online and face to face. Student Council hosts Shark Week, which includes a daily virtual event – trivia day, costume day, contests – before culminating on Fridays with an in-person get-together. Maya’s favorite FLVS event is the annual Club Awards Day in Orlando, where students get to celebrate their clubs and be recognized for their accomplishments.

“That’s just a little taste of what we do,” Maya said. “We do a lot of connecting students to each other, and to students and administrators.”

The first day of Maya’s senior year began on a bus from Prague to Berlin last summer, when she and her mother returned to Europe for a three-month backpacking tour. She used her finely honed time management and prioritization skills to complete a dual-enrollment humanities class through Polk State College, while checking internet signals and time differences to ensure she could lead student council meetings despite being thousands of miles away.

Because Maya’s education has not been defined by the system she attended or by where she lives, she and her FLVS classmates already were surfing the wave when COVID-19 closed brick-and-mortar schools across Florida and sent teachers and students scrambling to institute a new, unfamiliar form of learning. In fact, FLVS stepped into the breach, providing 100 digital courses – core curriculum, electives, Advanced Placement, and career and technical education – free of charge to all K-12 Florida schools through June 30.

It also quickly ramped up its server capacity, from the 215,000 students it served last year to accommodate 320,000 students by March 31, to 470,000 by mid-April, to 2.7 million by May 4.

Alaska took notice and contracted with FLVS to provide online learning to about 150 students. FLVS also will train Alaska teachers how to lead online courses themselves, and then license its digital curriculum for use by the new Alaska Statewide Virtual School.

That was a swift reaction to a rapidly changing landscape with an eye on the future.

Among plans being bandied about for re-opening schools this fall is an option for continued learning at home for students from high-risk groups, such as those who live with elderly people and those with compromised immune systems. Other students who got a taste of remote education and enjoyed the flexibility it offers might opt to continue that route either full time or part time.

Maya already has felt the impact. When the student council met the Friday after the virus shut down Florida schools, members were told that the usual end-of-school-year officer elections was being postposed to the beginning of the next academic year because FLVS expects a lot of new students in the interim.

“FLVS is growing,” Maya said, “and it will become the new normal for a lot of students.”

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