Online options for students

Justin Robinson, a sophomore at Florence High School, sets up his iPad on Wednesday at the Richards Center. The iPads are being distributed to students for use in the Florence Virtual School.

FLORENCE — When school starts back in a couple of weeks, 100 Florence High School students will be the district’s first Florence Virtual School participants.

They’ll be taking an array of courses — a total of 37 online options.

Florence Virtual High School, in the planning stages for the past year, is among the first of its kind in the state.

School administrators view the virtual school as a must in providing necessary nontraditional learning opportunities for students.

“Students of today are able to learn in these nontraditional ways and they can effectively learn anytime, anywhere,” said Florence High School Principal Lynne Hice.

“This is just another avenue Florence city schools is providing in order to meet the needs of our students as they prepare for their college and career experiences.”

Hice said the virtual courses offer students increased flexibility in schedules while meeting graduation requirements and participating in deep expansions of extracurricular activities such as the Florence Academy of Fine Arts, which is new to the system and gaining popularity.

For the past several summers, online classes have been offered through the state’s ACCESS distance learning program.

The virtual school takes the concept a step further by using only Florence teachers. Florence High School teachers typically have six periods of instruction. One or more of those classes could be virtual.

A few of the courses being implemented this year are designed by teachers apart from the state’s ACCESS content.

Florence Superintendent Janet Womack said the hope is to fully power the content from within the school district using in-house expertise. But for now, the school will use the state’s ACCESS distance learning content.

“There are so many advantages for our students participating in the virtual school but to allow them to take more classes in the evening hours and load their day schedule with the face-to-face classes they need is a certainly of great benefit to them,” Womack said. “In using our own teachers for this program we hope to help attach our students physically to the name and face of their teachers so when they encounter hurdles, they can get to that teacher in person.”

The courses are offered to students in grades ninth through 12th. Womack said the possibilities are limitless for students.

“We may have students wanting to finish high school in three years,” she said. “Our job is to offer that option, not limit them and tell them they must do it in a certain, traditional way. We’re creating opportunities based on what students expect instead of creating it our way and expecting them to fit the mold we create.”

Students must have a B average to participate. Their grades will be monitored throughout the process. Though students can take the classes when and from where they choose, they must come to campus and be in the teacher’s presence for all tests, quizzes and finals, which, Womack said, “ensures the quality of the program and that the students are mastering the standards.”

Teachers of the virtual classes have attended training sessions. Womack said many of them already have taught ACCESS classes in past years.

The fifth- through 12th-grade students in the system, as of this summer, have school district-issued iPads, which provide textbook material and the technology access they need to participate in virtual courses once they are eligible in high school.

“We couldn’t have even considered this if we didn’t have our one-to-one iPad initiative, which gives the students this technology that allows them to participate if they chose,” Womack said.

Liza Jane Richey, an upcoming junior in Florence, will take virtual classes in Spanish and Earth Science this year. Because she is heavily involved in the school’s fine arts program, she said, taking virtual classes freed up time for her to take more courses in the arts.

“I’ll be doing my online courses at night so I can spend more time during the day and after school focusing on the arts,” she said. “It’s a challenging schedule but I’m used to being busy so I’ll make it work. In the end, it’s going to benefit me greatly and I’ll get to do more in high school to benefit me going to college.”

Womack said the idea was to start the virtual school small, tweak it along the way and keep adding courses in hopes that one day all 272 of the district’s high school course offerings are available for students to take online.

Measures are in place to judge the virtual course program’s success. Benchmark assessments will be given every nine weeks in grades seventh through 12th, and mastery of standards will be determined.

Womack said the virtual school isn’t about minimizing the role of face-to-face contact between students and teachers.

“We know it’s not the perfect fit for every student but we certainly must offer the opportunity,” she said. “We’re trying to help students take their plan of study, whatever that may be, and see it through successfully to the end.”

Lisa Singleton-Rickman can be reached at 256-740-5735 or lisa.singleton-rickman@TimesDaily.com.

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