Alachua eSchool Revamped For New School Year

By on September 4th, 2013

Online learning doesn’t have to take place at home anymore.

Through Alachua eSchool, Alachua County’s virtual school, students can take their online classes from any of the county’s high schools during any of their six periods.

Gainesville High School, Buchholz High School, Eastside High School, Newberry High School, Santa Fe High School and Hawthorne Middle/High School have set up learning labs that are open all six periods for students who wish to take their online courses at school.

The partnership aims to provide more avenues for students who need to complete their virtual requirement for graduation or who prefer taking an online class, said eSchool coordinator, Ed Stefansen. All current ninth, 10th and 11th graders must complete a virtual course to earn a high school diploma — a law effective since the 2011-2012 school year.

Alachua eSchool is a franchise of Florida Virtual School, meaning the program uses FLVS materials for instruction but employs Alachua County teachers.

Its trial spring 2012 semester had an enrollment of 35 students and employed three adjunct teachers with a budget of $10,000, Stefansen said. By the 2012-2013 school year, the budget had increased to $80,000 to employ 13 adjunct teachers who taught 350 students. Adjunct teachers are employed as Alachua County teachers during the day and additionally teach for the virtual school part time.

This school year, enrollment has quadrupled to more than 1,500 students. A budget of $500,000 employs five full-time teachers and 28 adjuncts, and pays for the laptops at each school and the proctors who oversee each lab.

Gainesville High School’s online learning lab located in Room 27-0033 houses 30 Dell laptops for student use during each period. The funding for laptops and proctors comes from the program’s $500,000 budget to fulfill the needs of its growing student population.

Chabeli Herrera / WUFT News

Gainesville High School’s online learning lab, located in Room 27-0033, houses 30 Dell laptops for student use during each period. The funding for laptops and proctors comes from the program’s $500,000 budget to fulfill the needs of its growing student population.

In each online learning lab, a proctor monitors students to keep them on task while each student works independently on his or her own course from a school-issued laptop.

The benefit of the system, Stefansen said, is that students taking Alachua eSchool classes instead of FLVS classes experience a more structured form of education.

Alachua eSchool courses maintain FTE dollars, or the money allocated by the state per full-time student, within the district. If a student enrolls in a FLVS course, a portion of that money is lost to FLVS, said assistant superintendent of Alachua County schools, Karen Clarke.

The benefit of keeping FTE dollars in the district is funding for the materials and personnel needed for Alachua eSchool, a model that brings more face-to-face interaction to online learning, increasing the students’ ability for success, she said.

“When you turn something into an in-house program, even though it’s virtual and we are franchising with a company, at least I know who my teachers are. I know who the students are. I know what the curriculum is that they’re working on,” she said.

The district franchise makes meeting and speaking to teachers face to face a possibility.

Alachua eSchool teachers visit at least one high school twice a month to check on and help their students. On the other days, Richard Sheets, the eSchool assistant coordinator, is making the rounds to assure the system is running correctly and students aren’t falling behind.

After the first two weeks of classes, he said it was the ninth and 10th graders who have struggled adjusting to online learning coming from a middle school setting.

Sheets said these students are used to being “spoon-fed,” and that they are going to work with students struggling to transition to a more independent kind of learning.

A pacing guide is built into each course that allows the student, his or her parents, the teachers and the coordinators to monitor each student’s progress.

The greatest advantage of the format, Sheets said, is students can work at their own pace.

“It’s a very individualistic form of education, even if it’s done with 30 kids sitting in a lab,” he said.

Tiffany Donovan is a 16-year-old junior at Gainesville High School taking U.S. history in her sixth period learning lab. She said the flexibility is what she has enjoyed most about the online format.

“I have time to go back and look at the tests, re-take tests and get better as I keep going,” she said.

Donovan said the in-school format eliminates distractions and creates structure for online learning.

For some students, Alachua eSchool has been exactly the model they needed.

Will Clarke is a seasoned virtual school student. In the last two years, the 16-year-old Buchholz High junior has taken six online classes, one through FLVS and five through Alachua eSchool.

His baseball coach, former English teacher and one of the new teachers at Buchholz have all been among his Alachua eSchool teachers, created an avenue between student and teacher not seen with FLVS. Whenever he had questions about an online class, he could just visit them within his school.

“I just really like how I can go see my teachers and ask them questions whenever I need to,” Clarke said. “I love taking online classes. For me, I like it better than regular school because I can do it at my own pace, while in school they might move a lot faster than I need or a lot slower.”

As many as 200 students are enrolled per high school in the labs and smaller pilot versions are in effect at the middle and elementary school levels, with expansions expected for the coming years.

“One thing is for certain, if we are successful in this, we have created an independent learner,” Sheets said. “That doesn’t stop when you hand somebody a diploma. That will work for life.”

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