A publicly funded virtual high school is now operating in the central region of Florida. It may soon offer students in Orange and Alachua counties an opportunity to earn diplomas without setting foot in a classroom. All their instruction would come via the internet.

Numerous schools have started programs that let students take courses over the internet. But most of these programs are intended to supplement a student’s in-class learning, not replace it.

With the blessing of Florida Education Commissioner Frank Brogan, The Florida High School (TFHS) aims to become a fully accredited, online public high school able to confer diplomas. It will be the first such institution in FloridaÐperhaps in the country.

Current technology makes such a program entirely feasible, but is it desirable?

Absolutely, says Julie Young, TFHS’ principal for curriculum and instruction. The benefits for students who are motivated to succeed, she said, could be enormous.

“Any time, any place, any path, any pace”

“Research shows that many kids drop out of school just because they’re bored,” Young said. “In an online format, students can learn at their own pace. Our motto is, ‘Any time, any place, any path, any pace.'”

Not only can students learn and progress as quickly as their abilities will allow, said Young; they also can receive more individual instruction if they need it. Because teachers are free to spend additional time with students on concepts they are having trouble understanding, students aren’t left behind to struggle on their own in the wake of the material.

Carol Mitchell, who teaches the math portion of the school’s SAT prep class, agreed. “In a traditional school, I felt like I could never spend enough time with the kids who needed help. Here, I can provide a lot of one-on-one coaching.”

Young noted that many students simply don’t thrive in the structure of a traditional school setting. “I feel we’re meeting the needs of many students who aren’t being reached,” she said.

Luke Levesque, a junior at Winter Park High School, cited distractions by other students as the reason he decided to take his computer programming class online at TFHS. “I’m a lot more comfortable at home,” he said.

Young outlined several other cases in which distance learning offers an advantage: students who are supporting their families and would otherwise have to drop out of school; child professionalsÐmusicians, actors, athletesÐwho are often out on the road; children of divorced families, who must shuffle back and forth between two homes; and children of parents who travel for a living.

“Every day, I get a phone call that presents a new scenario,” said Young.

Though in its first year, TFHS actually dates back to the summer of 1996, when three teachers and a technology coordinator in Orange County began putting classes on the web. Around the same time, Alachua County officials were writing a request for a distance-learning grant.

That Florida state endowment, a $200,000 “Break the Mold” grant, provided the initial funding to cover the program’s administrative costs. At the suggestion of state officials, Alachua and Orange counties collaborated on the project, then called “Web School,” and the program was offered as a seventh period class for students of the two counties during the 1996-97 school year.

Now, 170 students from six school districts are enrolled in TFHS courses, such as algebra, American government, economics, and web design. Though students currently must attend classes at a geographical school as well, TFHS expects to add enough classes to offer a complete high school education to its students within three years.

Fuel for controversy?

TFHS officials are seeking full-time equivalency funding from the state to make this happen. But the idea of a fully online public school makes some people uneasy.

One question often posed to school officials is whether the absence of socialization or extra-curricular opportunities would inhibit students’ personal growth.

“Home schoolers have been dealing with these kinds of issues for years,” said Young. She pointed to a variety of opportunities for students to socialize and interact with their peers, such as community centers, clubs, organizations, and sporting leagues.

Also, Young said, all courses at TFHS require communication with other students as part of the curriculum. Students often are required to work in teams or collaborate on projects via eMail, and they discuss class material online. Many courses also require students to interview members of the community and report on what they’ve learned.

Another question Young frequently fields is how the integrity of student work is monitored online. Final evaluations for all classesÐwhether in the form of an exam, a speech, an explanation of a portfolio, or participation in a labÐare held in person, she said. Students must provide proof of their identity, and the evaluations determine whether students have done the work themselves or not.

Perhaps the biggest question facing the program is how to replace the benefits of daily, in-person interaction with teachersÐand how to keep kids on task without direct supervision. Although the school’s teachers spend a great deal of time emphasizing course requirements, communicating what is expected of their students, and maintaining contact with students by phone or eMail, Young admitted the lack of face-to-face interaction could be a problem for some students.

“We do our best to prepare students for the type of experience they’ll be embarking on, and to make sure they understand what it will require,” said Young. “But not every student is ready to assume that kind of responsibility. That’s going to be a constant challenge for us.”

Funding still a hurdle

TFHS could certainly help Florida’s overcrowding problemÐa crisis facing tens of thousands of schools nationwide. President Clinton has proposed $20 billion in zero-interest bonds over the next two years to build new schools and provide relief for overcrowded classrooms. Online schools such as TFHS would help stem the problem as well.

But first, the school must get the full-time equivalency funding it is seeking. The problem is one of logistics more than politics. “No one knows how to fund an organization that does not have seat time and attendance,” said Young.

While surprisingly few voters have questioned the wisdom of funneling education dollars into an online high school, Young said some school employees have expressed concern about losing part of their own funding to TFHS.

“We need to find or develop a funding model that is a win-win situation for all parties involved,” said Young.

The Florida High School