Florida has a high school that breaks all the rules of what the term "high school" implies. There is no school building, there are no bells between classes, and the school population is not drawn from normal geographical boundaries. This unique new school is an online statewide virtual place of learning where class begins when the kids click on.
Students arrive, sans yellow bus, at their Internet classroom on their own timetable, be that 9 a.m. or 9 p.m. But once they are at their computer, the work is tough, highly technical and involves a multitude of disciplines. The state legislature-funded project is two years old and serves 2,000 students.
The Florida (Online) High School principal, Julie Young and teacher Cheryl Woods demonstrated the new technology for governors and other participants at the recent National Education Summit in Palisades, New York. IBM, a partner with the virtual high school, was one of the sponsors of the summit.
How does it work? Any Florida student in grade 9-12 who is admitted to the program can chose from among 51 different courses covering everything from English, Math and Science to electives such as ancient Latin and modern business technology. Courses are free, and the cyber school employs certified fulltime teachers.
Students do their classwork on a computer desktop, interacting with teachers by e-mail, telephone and occasional face-to-face meetings. Algebra World, one of the math courses available, requires students to build a graph like that used for the board game "Battleship" and theoretically instills knowledge about graphs, slopes and x and y axis.
Although students are expected to retrieve information off the World Wide Web, they are also forced out of doors to interview professionals, or visit a workplace to help them better understand the subject they are studying.
The academic curriculum, which meets Sunshine State Standards, can eliminate a student's need to attend a traditional public school but most of those who have signed up so far are supplementing their regular school work.
Julie Young, the cyber-principal, described her school as a way of expanding the "repertoire" of public education, "so that kids get everything they need. There are so many different kids and lots of different ways to teach."
To benefit from the online school, students must be self-motivated and independent learners. To enroll, they must get permission from their principal, guidance counselor and parents.
"This isn't for everyone," Young says. "In reality, a classroom does not work for every student and online won't work for every student either."
Only five percent of those enrolled are full-time virtual students. Twenty-five percent are home schooled and the rest are enrolled in traditional schools. Those in normal public or private school take the online courses during or after school hours.
Every Florida school district participating in the project is required to provide computers for needy students.
"We are in the infant stages of serving that population," Young says. The legislature just donated 50 computers that will be used in pilot projects for minority students without access to computers and troublemakers suspended from regular classrooms.
Not everyone is delighted with the project. Mark Shoup,of the National Education Association-affiliated Indiana State Teachers Association said there is a small, but growing fear among educators that computers may one day replace them.
"Teachers are aware of becoming obsolete," Shoup told stateline.org.