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Bonita & Estero Magazine

Alt Ed - Lee Virtual School’s classroom-free education evolves and expands

May 22, 2017 09:48AM ● By Kevin

Lee VS language arts teacher Liz Kroll reviews writing expectations with high schoolers. Photo courtesy of Lee Virtual School.

Photo courtesy of Lee Virtual School.

Since launching eight years ago, Lee Virtual School hasn’t received the same public exposure as other Lee County School District bricks-and-mortar schools, but that certainly hasn’t stopped local learners from discovering the continually growing educational alternative.

Lee Virtual School’s original enrollment of 47 students stealthily rose to 328 full-time and 3,564 part-time students in kindergarten through 12th grade this year. Consistently earning an “A,” Lee Virtual School ranks in the top 10 percent of all public schools statewide and in the top three of district-led virtual schools for its size. It boasts the county’s lowest teacher attrition rate. Educators, students and parents simply call it Lee VS.

Lee VS is public school without walls. This online alternative to school bells, parent pick-up lines, classrooms and cafeterias grows as students discover how it can meet their academic needs—and other areas of their lives. It’s also preparing students for higher education, where distance learning annually increases.

One driver behind its growth is a mandate that all high school students complete an online course as a graduation requirement. Meanwhile, middle-school students are enrolling in supplementary Spanish, math and high school credit courses to advance academically.

Coursework and teacher interactions take place mostly via a district-issued Google Chromebook laptop computer. “At the end of the day, we’re just another school in this county,” says Al Shilling, who’s been principal of Lee VS since it launched for the 2009-2010 academic year. “When they’re enrolled here, they’re enrolled here.”

The impetus to choose the virtual education route varies as much as each student. Some are focused on becoming a professional athlete, dancer or artist. Some are coping with a physical injury or illness. Others choose the confines of their homes because of anxiety, asocial tendencies, religion, a homeschool tradition, lack of confidence in local options or commitment to a family business. Some aren’t home: They travel extensively. “The one thing they all have in common is the decision not to go to a brick-and-mortar school down the street,” Shilling explains.

Shilling is quick to note that this format isn’t designed for students who are falling behind in their traditional coursework. The predominant characteristics of a successful online learner are self-motivation, organization and independence, coupled with parental support. When students enroll, they’re asked upfront about their motivation. “We, quite honestly, have people who come here for the wrong reason. We are not a credit-recovery program,” he says. If students are scrambling to catch up, “more than likely they’re not working well independently,” Shilling adds.

Where Lee VS is headed next year, or the next, is anyone’s guess. Like the rest of the district this year, Lee VS adopted Chromebooks for grades six through 12. These laptops mainstream online interfacing through Google Classroom and have decreased “tech frustration” calls because of reduced operating system, software and browser conflicts. Shilling has hired more teachers and is exploring ways to accommodate the student load for face-to-face events. This year’s May 22 graduation will be held at Florida SouthWestern State College’s new auditorium, for an estimated 32 students.

“Every year, we’re changing to broaden the scope. We’ve been sending students to bricks-and-mortar schools with desks and teachers in front of them for hundreds of years, so we know what works in that setting,” notes Shilling, who began as a high school teacher in Lee County in 1995. “Honestly, VS is brand-new. It’s the Wild West of education—completely unchartered territory—so you never know what’s going to be over the next hill.”

Hybrid Opportunities

Virtual students don’t have daily interactions with peers and educators, but visit the Lee VS office in the school district’s administrative headquarters on Colonial Boulevard for orientation, assessments and mandated testing. There are also field trips, community service and regular academic days for in-person instruction. Getting facetime for subjects such as math, language arts and science “gives extra comfort to the parent, and it gets the child out of the house for a few hours,” Shilling says. Lee VS students can join book discussion, math, digital design and robotics clubs, participate in national organizations, and take honors and advanced placement courses.

Lee VS 2016-2017 staff members get together for a portrait. The school boasts the county's lowest teacher attrition rate. Photo by Garth Francis.

There are also hybrid opportunities to attend a local school for extracurricular activities, such as band and sports, core courses or electives. High schools students can dual enroll at Florida SouthWestern State College, Florida Gulf Coast University or a technical college.

Lee VS student Valerie Hernandez was developing her art portfolio, and enrolled at Cypress Lake Center for the Arts for art classes. She graduated at the top of her 2015 Lee VS class, earned a BIG ARTS/Robert Rauschenberg Scholarship, and is a sophomore studying illustration at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota.

Christian Wood, who comes from a large homeschooled family in Buckingham, flexed the option of dual enrollment. He enrolled in Lee VS in seventh grade to help his mother save money on homeschooling fees for books, materials and other charges. When Wood’s mother “realized that all it took was a computer, it kind of streamlined things.”

A guidance counselor told him there was another cost-saving opportunity: signing up for dual enrollment at Fort Myers Technical College when Wood reached his junior year. He “piled on the credits” while becoming certified in automotive service technology. “It sounded like a great idea. You don’t have to pay for it because you’re a public school student,” Wood says.

Despite the extra workload, Wood graduated as 2016 valedictorian of Lee VS with a 5.42 grade point average. He took first place in the state for automobile service through SkillsUSA, and placed fifth nationally. But interning at a local car-repair business during his senior year made Wood realize that it wasn’t the career for him. Now a freshman at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, he plans to earn a bachelor’s of science in mechanical engineering. “It’s a broad field, so you can’t gauge where you’re going until you get into your degree,” says Wood, who is now 19.

Hybrid experiences and dual enrollment are surfacing as a fundamental way to fuse the online world with real-life applications and socialization. “It’s pretty darn successful,” says Shilling. “In my opinion, it’s where all this is headed.”

Lee VS middle schoolers get together on the first day of school. Photo courtesy of Lee Virtual School.

Excelling is the goal at Lee VS, Shilling explains, because it doesn’t receive funding for a student who doesn’t pass a course or his or her grade level. So, in some ways, the stakes are higher for the teachers and the students. Teachers are typically available between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. but schedule their days to the standard seven hours and 35 minutes. “There’re only two aspects to being a successful virtual student,” Shilling says: “Submit work regularly and stay in contact with your teacher. It sounds incredibly simple but you need a good, structured schedule and organization.”

Full-time students are expected to sign in for daily attendance. Teachers are required to speak with a student’s parent each month. (At the elementary level, 10 contact hours are required each quarter.) Parents who’ve had difficulty communicating with teachers in the past say it makes a big difference. “I get more communication from Lee VS than I ever did,” says Monica Busbee, whose daughter, Kelsey, had attended both public and private schools before enrolling in ninth grade at Lee VS. “Obviously, you have to be involved in your child’s life no matter where they go.”

Lee VS middle school math teacher Marilyn Skolnick notices the difference, too: “When it comes to parent involvement, which I feel is a huge part of a child’s education, it’s a thousand times better. If there’s an issue, the parent will handle it with the child rather than blame the teacher. I hate to say that, but that’s one thing I appreciate.”

When she was at Caloosa Middle School, Skolnick “struggled to talk to parents. Some, I never even met.” Recently, Skolnick discovered one of her high-achieving virtual students is dyslexic. Getting good grades in a traditional school may mean that such a student’s extra efforts are overlooked. “I feel they don’t get rewarded enough,” she says. “Everything is data driven. It’s focused on the test and the bottom 25 percent” not making the grade.

Busbee’s two older children successfully graduated from local schools. Much younger, Kelsey’s school choice option was uncertain. Kelsey struggles in math, but after three years of private school, her grades remained flat and she continued to struggle. Her self-esteem suffered, too. “It takes a lot of courage to say in front of 20 students ‘I need help.’ She left not knowing any more in math, and was kind of slipping away academically,” Busbee says. Kelsey attends face-to-face math instruction each Tuesday and has landed on the honor roll again for the first time since elementary school. “She loves the fact that she is in control of what she’s doing. If she gets burned out on math, she does English the next day,” Busbee adds. “I love what it’s done to her self-esteem.”

Written by Cathy Chestnut, a freelance writer and frequent contributor to TOTI Media.