By Patrick McCallister
For Hometown News
VOLUSIA - More students have stopped going to campuses, and Volusia County Schools is OK with that. They'll graduate - they're in virtual classes.
At its last regular meeting, Sept. 11, the Volusia County School Board got an update on Volusia Virtual, the district's online-education program. Melissa Carr, coordinator, said 125 of the district's students never step foot onto campuses if they don't want to, except to take tests such as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
"If we are truly looking at the needs of today's students, I believe we are always going to need face-to-face instruction for a lot of them," she said in an interview after the meeting. "However, there's a growing number of students whose form of learning is digital, is virtual."
Chandler Zimmet is one of the fulltime Volusia Virtual students. The 17-year-old senior is starting her third virtual school year.
"It has been a good experience for me," she said. "Being in online school, you have to do school work a certain number of hours a day. You learn that you have to get stuff done to succeed, really."
Students who started high school last year are now required to take at least one online course to graduate. That's swelling Volusia Virtual's part-time student ranks. About 350 part-time students, along with the 125 fulltime ones, are enrolled in 1,830 courses. Last school year, students took 1,161 courses through Volusia Virtual. The program swelled from 85 full-time students last school year. Ms. Carr said as the school year progresses, more students would be added to Volusia Virtual's ranks.
"This year, we're probably going to hit 1,500," she said.
Most will be part-time students.
Volusia Virtual has eight district teachers, up from four last year. Additionally, Volusia Virtual students get classes through the Florida Virtual School, Pasco eSchool and K12, a national online education provider.
K12 is under a Florida Department of Education investigation for possibly using teachers who lacked proper certification. The company reports it launched an internal investigation into the allegations.
Volusia students have had online-class options since about 2000, according to Ms. Carr. It started at the high-school level, and over time middle-school classes were added. Two years ago elementary classes were added to Volusia Virtual. Ms. Carr said it's now possible for a Volusia student to take online classes from kindergarten to graduation. About 92 percent of Volusia students who start online classes successfully finish them, which is above the national average.
Ms. Carr said a blended-learning pilot program would start this school year with some of the district's elementary students.
"That pilot program will open in the spring, second semester," she said. "We're looking at gifted students and are looking at accelerating their learning through this blended program."
Virtual-class instructors don't have the class-size restrictions Florida voters approved in 2002 - the Class Size Reduction Amendment to the Florida Constitution. Ms. Carr said virtual-school teachers sometimes have classes of up to 150 students. Chandler said she sometimes has to wait "all day" for teachers to respond to e-mail questions.
Glenn Zimmet, Chandler's father, said the benefits of online classes have outweighed their problems. Chandler has medical issues that limit her ability to go to school. He said Chandler has learned a high degree of self-discipline that'll benefit her in college and beyond.
"She has learned to work so independently," he said. "When she gets her classes, she knows how much she wants to do a day and does it."
However, "Here's the downside - you don't see your friends at school," he said. "I graduated in 1977. I had a lot of friends that did everything together."
Chandler said she misses school time with her friends.
Virtual students can participate in extracurricular activities at whatever school is in the district where they live.
To enroll in Volusia Virtual, students had to have attended a Florida school the previous year, except for those in lower grades, and have a school counselor's recommendation. The district prefers they have a cumulative 2.0 GPA and did well in the reading portion of the FCAT at their last testing.
Chandler has a tip for those considering Volusia Virtual.
"You really need to push yourself and do your schoolwork," she said. "You have to want to learn, or it's not going to work."