It’s almost everywhere you look these days – technology. Today’s students have grown up with it at their fingertips. They rely on technology to learn, from surfing the Web and conducting research to communicating and sharing information. Students have more online learning options than ever before. In fact, there are more than 67 K-12 virtual school districts across the state including Pinellas County Schools Pinellas Virtual School.
Pinellas Virtual School is a local online K-12 Pinellas County public school. Because of this, Pinellas Virtual School can offer students benefits state and nationally affiliated online schools cannot. For example, Pinellas Virtual School’s curriculum is the same as the school district’s brick-and-mortar schools. Its courses are taught by highly qualified, Pinellas County schoolteachers. Students can partake in local extracurricular activities such as field trips with their fellow virtual classmates or participate at their neighborhood school in programs such as music and athletics.
While online learning continues to grow in popularity, the U.S. Department of Education has found that students who took all or part of their classes online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction. Although the research sounds promising – virtual school is not for every student. As parents, you want to be sure a virtual school will be a good fit for your child. Here are five criteria to consider when selecting an online K-12 school.
1. Get on course
Most virtual schools offer curriculum that is as rigorous as any traditional school. However, it’s important to know the courses offered. You want courses that are parallel to your child’s grade level, interests and abilities. Ask if the curriculum aligns to state standards and if virtual school credits are transferrable to a traditional school within your school district.
Pinellas Virtual School offers more than 120 full-time and part-time online courses, including newly added part-time summer courses such as Health and Health Opportunities through Physical Education. The school also offers rigorous Honors and Gifted courses.
Since teachers who work for the school district create Pinellas Virtual’s curriculum, the courses can easily be modified to reflect current events. For example, an elementary lesson about Florida history can be adapted to include a field trip to Cracker Village, a Florida pioneer community with authentic buildings used to illustrate early Florida pioneer customs and traditions. It is a good idea to ask about the structure of a course and if it can be adapted. It is common for virtual schools to use a mix of online and print materials to keep students engaged. In contrast to Pinellas Virtual School, state and nationally developed virtual school curricula are more regimented and not modifiable.
2. Know the teachers
A teacher’s presence and accessibility is as important in a virtual school as it is in a brick-and-mortar school. In a virtual school, a teacher plays a critical role in customizing a plan to suit students’ individual learning needs and schedule. For example, Pinellas Virtual School offers one-on-one instruction for students. Online teachers have to meet the same professional and educational qualifications as teachers in traditional schools. Be sure to ask about teachers’ certifications for the subject areas in which they teach and the frequency of professional development opportunities.
The role of a virtual school-teacher is more than just an educator. It is important that a virtual school instructor be a good communicator and coach, while also maintaining continuity of students’ online learning experiences. In today’s virtual environment, teachers can communicate with students and families in a variety of ways. Ask how the teacher prefers to communicate with students and families and how frequently.
3. Understand the virtual student profile
A good virtual school candidate is a student who is an independent learner, goal-oriented, computer savvy and enjoys reading. Believe it or not, virtual school requires a great deal of reading. It’s not just listening to an instructor and watching the computer screen. Ask what your child can expect when taking an online course. Some courses are taught with other students, while others work one-on-one with only the course teacher. Working as part of a group enables student collaboration. One of the benefits of a local virtual school such as Pinellas Virtual School is students are able to have discussions with classmates online and in person – offline.
What is the objective of the student? Virtual school can be tailored to suit students’ needs such as dual enrollment, accelerated learning and course recovery. All virtual schools provide students with scheduling flexibility with access to lessons 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Generally, higher student engagement in online course activities leads to more successful learning experiences.
4. Gain a sense of community
Just because a school is virtual, does not mean students have to miss out on the social aspects found in a traditional school. Many virtual schools offer offline field trips, as well as e-field trips, to enhance learning and give students an opportunity to interact away from the classroom. For example, Pinellas Virtual School holds several field trips for full-time students throughout the year, such as science outings to a water treatment plant or an elementary outing to a local library. These activities contribute to the school’s sense of community.
Virtual school communities comprised of students, parents and teachers tend to be strong and tight-knit. Pinellas Virtual School, for example, hosts a winter social and end-of-the-year picnic to ensure students develop socially as well as academically. These opportunities help students and their families connect with the school’s supportive learning community.
5. Ensure school accreditation
One of the attributes of school accreditation is quality. There are regional and national accrediting agencies that monitor schools for quality, as well as distance education providers. Parents should check to ensure that the school, its course provider, or courses, are accredited by an accrediting agency.
Pinellas County schools has been recommended for accreditation through AdvancED, a globally recognized accreditation organization. As a part of the school district’s accreditation, Pinellas Virtual School will align and focus its priorities, goals and actions, and improve systems and processes to better drive student achievement.
Although virtual schools can offer a customized education for a variety of kids – it is not for everyone. Success in online learning requires a commitment from all parties involved. Parents and students need to be their own advocates and communicate regularly with school administrators.
If you would like to test the virtual school waters, consider a summer course. This will give you an opportunity to sample the curriculum and see if the approach is a good fit for your child’s learning style. Pinellas Virtual School part-time enrollment ends March 27. Visit www.pcsb.org/virtual to register.
Mandy Perry leads Pinellas Virtual School, an online K-12 Pinellas County public school, and serves on the Florida District Virtual Instruction Program Network Board of directors.