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Friday, Oct 24, 2014
Education

Interest in virtual schooling surges in Tampa Bay area

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CLEARWATER — For the first time in its 16-year history, Florida Virtual School, the largest state-run online K-12 school in the nation, this year had to fire teachers due to low enrollment numbers and diminished funding. At the same time, school districts across the Tampa Bay area are dealing with too many students.

Pre-enrollment for August and September Florida Virtual courses dropped 32 percent from last year, forcing the school to lay off 177 staff members, 625 part-time instructors, and leave more than 250 open positions unfilled over the last month. The cuts represent about one-third of the school’s workforce, said Florida Virtual School spokeswoman Tania Clow.

It’s likely a new state law pushed all those students into virtual education programs run by school districts.

Before, schools would get a set amount of funding for each student, and if students enrolled in Florida Virtual School, the state would give extra funding to pay for each credit. Now, the online provider and the students’ home schools have to share funding for each student, meaning both get less money when students take the online classes. Because high school students will soon be required to take an online course to graduate, a measure that will affect seniors next school year, many school districts, including Hillsborough and Pasco counties, are encouraging students that have to take online courses to stay within the school district. Others school districts, such as Pinellas, are having to turn students away.

“We used to encourage students taking courses above and beyond their school day to go to Florida Virtual because they could earn more funding for them then we could as a district, but now we’re really engaged in keeping the kids with us,” said Christina Russell, director of virtual instructional programs for Hillsborough County schools. “If they go to Florida Virtual, we’d have to pay the money anyway, so why wouldn’t we just meet the needs of our kids ourselves?”

For the first time, Hillsborough will offer rolling enrollment in online courses, and preliminary numbers show that student enrollment has already doubled last year’s numbers, with about 400 full-time students and 3,900 part-time. The school district, which enrolled about 200,000 students this school year, is currently in a hiring freeze as it waits to process incoming student applications; but depending on funding, it likely will hire more teachers to meet the growing need, Russell said. The school district also has opened up new online electives and Advanced Placement courses, such as French, art and forensic science, to attract students to district courses and is not capping the number of students.

Pasco eSchool also made an effort to keep students in-house this school year and has the second-biggest enrollment in the state this year at 11,820, behind Broward Virtual School, which enrolled 14,522 students. Pasco County, where 64,116 students are enrolled this school year, doesn’t cap enrollment for online courses either and attracted more students from neighboring counties by offering the first online American Sign Language course in the state this year, said school district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe. In those cases, students’ home school districts pay for them to enroll in Pasco eSchool.

To mitigate the strain the extra students put on the program, the school district offered classes year-round for the first time, allowing some students to get a jump on their courses over the summer.

Pinellas County’s response to the surge in interest was a shortened enrollment window for students.

“We’ve reached the point where demand has surpassed capacity, similar to the situation with district application programs such as magnets and fundamentals,” said Pat Lusher, the school district’s director of academic computing, in a statement. “We want to maintain the quality of the program by not placing more students in a classroom than existing resources can support.”

Last school year, 165 full-time students and 167 part-time students were enrolled in the program, but those numbers were met within the first few weeks of this year’s enrollment period, which closed a week early. This school year, there are 320 full-time students and 118 part-time students, said school district spokeswoman Melanie Marquez-Parra. The school district, which this year enrolled 101,348 students, will hire a handful of part-time teachers to accommodate the higher numbers, but how many has yet to be determined. For now, the course offerings will remain the same, Marquez-Parra said.

Students won’t be able to enroll in the online courses until April, but enrollment is likely to keep climbing, Lusher said. More students are interested in taking online college courses, she said. Meanwhile, legislators are pushing schools to offer more online courses as students prepare to switch to the Common Core standards for the 2014-2015 school year. The Common Core will require students to be familiar with online testing, and many standardized tests such as the ACT are switching to an online format. But where the money to pay for those extra classes would come from is still up in the air, she said.

For August and September, 12,028 students are enrolled in Florida Virtual courses, compared to the 17,878 were enrolled this time last year. After the massive layoffs, Florida Virtual school is now operating with 1,231 instructors and instructional support staff, and 36 part-time teachers, Clow said.

“What needs to be important here is a student’s right to educational choice,” Clow said. “The quality of our programs hasn’t been affected by this, and we are optimistic that student enrollment will increase in the future because interest is there. For now, we’ll just do what we can through grassroots movements.”

adawson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-9851

Twitter: @adawsonTBO

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