School Districts Turn to Virtual Learning to Fulfill Curriculum Requirements, Address Staffing Gaps

Thanks to technological advances made over the last two decades, students are no longer limited to learning in traditional classroom environments. Online education options have proliferated, with significant growth occurring at state-sponsored virtual schools allowing students and parents to choose virtual schooling as a viable educational option. During the 2012-2013 school year, 400 full-time virtual schools enrolling nearly 261,000 students were in operation across the country.

In addition, students can take online courses from virtual schools to augment their brick and mortar classroom. Online learning offers school districts, teachers and students access to courses and resources that might not be available in their school.

Virtual schooling has become a viable education choice because it provides:

• Learning outside the classroom: Students, including those who may be homebound for health or personal reasons, use technology to learn and grow in the comfort of familiar environments.

• Personal attention: One-on-one teacher/student contact enables teachers to better focus on each student's unique needs and provide a more customized approach to learning.

• Personalized learning: Students and parents create self-paced learning schedules that work for them based on their hobbies, activities, passions and travel and work schedules.

• Access to more courses: Students can explore course options that meet their unique needs or special interests.

• Global competence skills: Online education opens doors to the world and provides access for students to engage and communicate with other students across the globe; enhancing their world view and global competence.

Most importantly, virtual schools work.

One great example of how school districts across the nation embrace technology is the Guthrie Common School District (GCSD.) Although it serves the third-smallest county in the United States, it lacks neither talented educators nor vision. Located in rural west Texas, the school district recognized the fundamental shifts that were occurring in education and resolved to not only begin leveraging the vast world of educational opportunity, but to become a provider of exemplary education to other rural districts throughout the state.

Realizing the power of blended and personalized learning to address the gaps created by limited resources, GCSD established the Guthrie Virtual School (GVS) to provide the very best in online learning, with its efforts focused primarily on small and rural school districts that offer limited options for their students. In 2015, GVS's online learning averaged a 95 percent completion rate.

Halfway across the country, Florida Virtual School (FLVS), the nation's first state-wide, internet-based public high school, was established in 1997 to provide virtual K-12 education solutions to students not only in the state of Florida, but throughout the U.S. and the world.

Both of these Virtual Schools recognized the importance of bilingualism to the futures of its students in an increasingly global workforce, but were each saddled with unique challenges - ranging from scarce resources to a lack of qualified foreign language instructors.

With a foreign language credit required for graduation and only one language instructor in the district, GVS added a Spanish component, which the district sought to have approved by the Texas Virtual School Network - serving more than 2,000 students throughout Texas - so other rural districts could offer Spanish to its students. Because of this implementation, Guthrie students were able to fulfill their language requirement for graduation.

The GVS's Spanish I and II courses were approved by the state, and the program started with 175 students statewide. Spanish III was recently added, and the program has grown to 850 students, all receiving Spanish credit in the 2014-2015 academic year. The program is currently investigating adding French and German to its course catalog.

A nationally recognized e-learning model, Florida Virtual School needed a digital solution to complement virtual instruction that focused on conversational Spanish at beginning levels, opening the door to higher levels of study. With a focus on part-time students, the school wanted a program that would afford students access to a foreign language course outside of the regular school day and one that could expedite study for students to earn credit through a shortened semester offering. FLVS developed a new virtual Spanish I course. As a result, course completion time was reduced by 12.5 percent.

These are just two example of how virtual schools are re-imagining what is possible in public school education today on both a national and global scale. By creating choices for both students and parents and providing access to high-quality education outside classroom walls, it empowers them to customize an education that meets the scope of aspirations as diverse as our student population.