Students at Williamson County Schools could have the option of taking some courses online starting next year.
Superintendent Mike Looney proposed adding online classes at a school board work session last night. If the board approves the proposal, there would be up to 500 spots available for online classes starting next fall, and potentially more in the future.
Looney said the district plans to buy the courses from Florida Virtual School, an online school created by the state of Florida that offers classes to students all over the nation. The district will have to pay about $50,000 to buy 500 spaces in the Florida school’s program.
At the meeting, Looney told board members that adding the online courses would give students more flexibility and could free up classrooms in a district that doesn’t have enough space for students. The district expects to grow by 20,000 students over the next decade, and it doesn’t have enough space right now to teach them all.
“I think it has the potential for building capacity in our overfilled classrooms by being smart about classroom use,” he said. “If the kids have to come to meet the teacher twice a week, then three times a week that classroom is vacant.”
The courses at Williamson County next semester wouldn’t be fully online. Students would show up in class two days a week and do work online three days a week. The proposal caps the number of credits that students could take at two classes per semester and two during the summer. Students would still have to go to school for all of their regular classes, but could get out early a few days a week.
Looney said that kind of flexibility could help students who travel a lot with sports teams or students that have after school jobs. Offering more classes could also help high achieving students that want to move faster.
Students can take online courses already if the district doesn’t offer them, but Looney called some of the current courses “junk.” Right now, if a student takes an online class it’s essentially viewed the same as a course taken at a different high school. Students don’t get a regular letter grade on their transcript. It just notes whether they passed or failed.
“Right now we have kids that are taking courses, but they’re taking them from a variety of providers,” Looney said. “Some of it’s junk. Some of these kids are taking these courses and in 10 weeks time they haven’t learned anything.”
Creating an online program at Williamson County Schools will allow the district to scrutinize the curriculum that students take, which Looney said will result in higher quality online classes. Florida Virtual School will provide the curriculum and the technology, but Williamson County teachers will teach the class. Students will get a regular grade at the end of the class, and it will count the same as a course taken at a Williamson County school.
Several board members expressed concerns that students wouldn’t get high-quality instruction, or wouldn’t get the individual attention that a teacher can provide. Florida Virtual School reports that its students do a little better than Florida students in traditional schools on Advanced Placement exams.
A study from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government found that it is partially because the students at Florida Virtual School tend to be higher achievers. Compared with traditional schools in Florida, the students at the virtual school had higher test scores before high school. The school also had fewer students with special needs, fewer students that qualify for free school lunches and more white students. But after accounting for those advantages, the study found that Florida Virtual School students still do about the same or a little better than other students on standardized tests.
Florida Virtual Schools allows up to 150 students in a class, but Looney said Williamson County Schools would have a ratio of one teacher to a maximum of 35 students in the online classes.
The district still hasn’t selected teachers to teach the online courses, but Looney said it hopes to identify those teachers by the end of the school year. They would receive training on how to teach online courses before the start of the next semester, but Looney acknowledged that it might be a tough transition.
“Every good math teacher is not going to be a great online teacher,” he said.
The program would start out at high schools. Students wouldn’t have to pay tuition for the online courses. The district is considering offering several types of courses such as English, computer science, governments and physical education.
Students would still be able to take online courses that the district doesn’t offer —just like they can now — but they would have to pay for those courses. The school board will still need to vote on the proposal at a regular board meeting to approve it.