Florida private schools seeking online learning options for students who are not ready to return to campus just got a lifeline from one of nation’s leaders in virtual education.
Florida Virtual School, the state’s 23-year-old public online school district, recently announced it would make its roster of 190 courses available for purchase by private schools that participate in state scholarship programs such as the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program for lower-income students and Gardiner Scholarship program for students with unique abilities, both of which are administered by Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog. Offerings range from classes for kindergarteners through 12th graders.
“Florida Virtual School is excited to partner with Step Up For Students to provide educational solutions that meet the needs of Florida’s private schools during these challenging times,” said Louis Algaze, president and CEO of Florida Virtual School.
This is not the first time the online school has come to the rescue of Florida’s students. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic that fueled a rush to online learning last spring, the nonprofit K-12 school spent $4.7 million to boost its capacity, allowing it to serve 2.7 million students in district, charter and private schools.
“It is our priority to help all students stay on track with their education and to partner with Florida schools and school districts to quickly support them with additional resources,” Algaze said. “We want to play our part to provide a coordinated, seamless education for all learners, kindergarten through high school.”
The partnership allows private schools to choose between two options. They can buy access to the Florida Virtual School system, pre-loaded with FLVS courses, for their instructors to teach online to their students, or they can buy the use of the platform to use other courses or create their own content that their teachers can use for online classes. (The first option requires a minimum of 25 students.)
School administrators also may choose between two teacher training programs: a self-paced guide or a live group webinar.
Because each school’s own faculty will be teaching the classes, there are no restrictions on the number of courses each student who receives a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship or Family Empowerment Scholarship may take.
Nine schools signed up as of Wednesday, and several others have expressed an interest.
“We want to expose our students to online learning and give them the opportunity to engage in online learning,” said Steve Hicks, vice president of operations for Center Academy, which operates nine campuses in Florida and one in Georgia for students with learning differences.
The school opened its first campus in 1968 with a vision to offer a specialized, full-day program for students who were falling through the cracks at their district schools.
“We could see the advantages, especially for courses we don’t typically offer in a small school,” said Hicks, who also serves as president of the Coalition of McKay Scholarship Schools and treasurer of the Florida Association of Academic NonPublic Schools.
He said state law requires students who are working toward a standard diploma to take an online class as part of the curriculum.
“Florida Virtual School is our go-to organization for that,” Hicks said, adding that the courses would be especially good for students who want to learn foreign languages other than those taught on campus.
The program also will allow Center Academy to broaden its offering of electives.
“We want to offer things kids are interested in,” Hicks said. “This provides some guided support. It’s a real incentive for private schools.”
The online experience also provides good preparation for Center Academy students who plan to attend college, which often requires more blended learning.
Hicks said that about 60 to 70 percent of students have returned to campus as the numbers of COVID-19 cases decline and distractions of home prove challenging to some students who may have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or are on the autism spectrum.
He nevertheless sees a deeper partnership with FLVS as a good way for private schools to stretch their resources and continue to attract students.
Some schools, including his own, are losing teachers to district schools in the wake of a significant increase in the minimum salary Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law for public school teachers this year. The legislation puts Florida in the top five nationally for teacher pay.