By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org
When Allie Schnacky, 13, was cast as Pippi Longstocking in a play, her public elementary school wouldn’t allow her to be absent as often as she needed to perform.
Her parents pulled her from the school and enrolled her in Florida Virtual School, an online public school that allows for more flexibility – so she can pursue what she loves.
“When I was at my regular school, they’d get mad at me and tell me I wasn’t allowed to miss anymore, but (theater) is my passion,” she said.
This is her fourth year with FLVS, and this year she’s performing in “A Christmas Carol.” She hopes to attend The Julliard School and perform on Broadway.
What’s a normal day like for her?
“I wake up around 8:30, and I go and eat breakfast, then check my calendar to see what I have to do today. Then I finish all my lessons for the day, then I go to dance and go to my theater,” she said. “I catch up with my work on the weekends.”
Students can attend FLVS full-time or part-time, and many full-time students are athletes or artists or entrepreneurs, or struggling with a severe medical problem that keeps them, between home and hospital, out of the school building, said Tania Clow, community relations specialist for FLVS.
About a quarter of part-time students are supplementing their homeschool curriculum. Others may be traditional public school students taking an FLVS class their school doesn’t offer, or taking a core class through FLVS to free up their schedule for an elective their school does offer.
Students get more individual attention at FLVS than at a traditional school, said Shawn Wigg, who teaches Algebra 1 and intensive math for FLVS.
Many students have an initial fear of math, he said, but because of the virtual environment, he can chat with students one-on-one and help them relax and open up to the subject.
“That helps lead them to a point of mastery. We’re not confined to any sense of time – it’s about their mastery of a concept. They understand that coming in – that comfort level, their ability to go at their own pace.”
Students who struggle can move through the lessons more slowly, mastering one concept before moving on to the next. Students who are more talented in that area don’t have to sit in class, bored, while the teacher explains a concept they already understand.
Students can complete courses quickly or slowly, and the school receives funding when students successfully complete courses, Clow said.
Wigg communicates to his students through email, phone, text message, social media and other means. When several students are struggling with the same concept, he’ll offer live lessons, where a group of students gathers online to learn the subject and discuss it. He offers them frequently to keep group sizes small.
“It helps them realize they’re not alone, so they can help each other. I find a lot of times when I do those sessions, they say something in a different way than I say it, and they learn from each other,” he said.
Student assessment data is available immediately, so teachers know exactly how students are doing and whether they are ready to move on to the next concept.
“I don’t want them to just take a lesson and walk away. I want them to leave with mastery of the concept,” he said. “At FLVS, teachers have the independent freedom to be able to know our students and their needs and make the best instructional decisions we need to to make sure they’re successful.”
Teachers usually average about 150 students at a time — the same as teaching six periods with 25 students each in a traditional school. They’re available to students from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day, and do discussion-based assessments of students at least once a month, which help find red flags — for example, if a student gets an A on an exam but can’t answer the question on the phone.
Kim Schnacky, Allie’s mother, said she’s been grateful for the skills Allie has learned on top of the standard academic knowledge.
“I’ve seen her learn motivational skills and plan her day, what time she has to get up. I see her being a lot more independent and responsible for her time because of Florida Virtual,” she said.
Allie has three siblings — Noah, 16, Ella, 9, and Noelle, 6. Allie and Noah attend FLVS, while the younger two still attend their traditional elementary school. All four are heavily involved in the arts.
Kim said she plans to keep the younger kids in the traditional school until the school won’t tolerate their absences.
She wants them to have the classroom experience, she said, and the younger students aren’t old enough to be home without parents and handle school independently.
“The two older ones are capable of managing lessons and times themselves. If the little ones were home, it’d be a free-for-all,” she said.
She said she’s been grateful for the opportunities provided by FLVS.
“This program has been a blessing. It allowed our kids to be able to excel academically and in performing arts. This was definitely the route we needed to go.”
Contact Mary C. Tillotson at email@example.com.
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