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Florida Virtual School funding threatened while online enrollments on rise

040913-met-flvs-03Florida Virtual School is one of the oldest and largest online ventures for K-12 education, serving more than 150,000 students last year in full-time and part-time courses.

But a bill passed by the state legislature now threatens the program’s revenue stream, the Palm Beach Post reports:

Proponents say the bill, which is awaiting Gov. Rick Scott’s signature, is meant to level the playing field because the virtual school has an advantage over traditional school districts with the current funding formula.

But Florida Virtual, or FLVS, says the changes will hurt its bottom line, and is forcing it to look at increasing its virtual class sizes, cutting back on its offerings or laying off some instructional staff.

“This is a time when there’s (an additional) billion dollars going into education,” said Julie Young, chief executive officer of FLVS. She estimates that FLVS will lose $36 million next school year with the funding formula change — although it is still expected to get more money next year than this year.

The formula changes would also affect school districts, which have come to rely on online course providers to help manage class size restrictions, tight school budgets and other requirements affecting the classroom, as well as provide students more course offerings. Under the new funding formula, districts would take in less money for each student who is enrolled in one or more online classes.

Florida has passed a law requiring every public school student take at least one online class in order to graduate. And the state has also authorized the creation of virtual charter schools.

“We’re looking at a shifting time in education,” said Debra Johnson, principal of Palm Beach Virtual School, told the Post. Her school has 230 full-time students and thousands of others taking some online classes part-time. “There’s a move to give students a variety of options to serve their needs.”

Take a look here at the Post story, which provides a good picture of how Florida Virtual School operates.

Florida Virtual, which began in 1997 with a staff of seven, has grown to employ 1,155 full-time teachers and almost 500 adjuncts. All instructors are certified by the state, which recognizes Florida Virtual as an official school district — just like any other, except that it has no geographic boundaries. Most students take its courses to supplement their regular school work.

Here’s more from the Florida Virtual School site.

 — photo by Palm Beach Post. View of Kim Bouchillon, a Florida Virtual School teacher (seen in lower right hand of computer screen), during a recent morning session. 

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The ‘brilliant’ bus: Has knowledge, will travel

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She calls it Estella’s Brilliant Bus, and she uses it to bring computer-based learning to some of the most forgotten schoolchildren in America.

Estella Mims Pyform grew up in these backwaters, a daughter of the segregated South who started working in the fields at age 6 as a migrant worker, her family annually going up the road, as they called it, from the Okeechobee mudlands of Florida to the hills of New York State.

“Beans, potatoes, strawberries, corn, apples, tomatoes,” she recalls one quiet morning on board the technology-laden bus, her eyes still seeing those sweat-gained crops in the grip of her hands.

All the while, until she was 25 years old, she and her six siblings went to school.

“My father had a different concept from most people. His attitude about education was, we as parents need to do what we have to do to make sure you go to school. So if you have to work a little harder, fine. So even in New York when we traveled, if school was open, we went.”

She earned four college degrees and became a teacher, guidance counselor and high school drill-team coach back in her hometown of Belle Glade, an Everglades town so destitute that it was the subject of the famous 1960s Edward R. Murrow TV documentary, “Harvest of Shame,” that opened America’s eyes to home-grown poverty.

She notched 50 years with the Palm Beach County School District, interrupted by two years in which she attempted to retire, only to come back as an elementary-school guidance counselor because she still saw much to do.

“In working with the low-income families, I saw so much that was needed,” Pyfrom says. For some of them, “not even soap to bathe with. Or detergent to wash the clothes with.”

After a while, “you start asking yourself, what can I do to make a difference to this population of people?”

They were her people. She’d gone to school with them. She’d taught, coached and counseled their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She knows they’ll be lost if the education system passes them by.

Just as urgently, they need computer skills.

“It’s absolutely necessary,” says this 76-year-old who grew up without a radio, never mind a TV. “We’re in an age of technology and computers. Just to fill out a job application — you can’t do that on paper anymore.”

The idea of a bus seemed a natural way to spread the knowledge to these Everglade towns, located miles from everywhere else. “I couldn’t think of a better way to get it out to them.”

DSC_0016She had the vehicle built to her specifications, from the wheels and chassis on up, designing it so that she could be driver, if need be. She spent about $900,000 of her own money, a hefty chunk of her retirement savings after a lifetime of work, which included night work in addition to her day jobs. She sold insurance and taught evening classes, all while raising four children of her own (two with Ph.Ds) and three kids of her youngest sister.

She started in 2009, but had to take a few months off to nurse her husband of 60 years, Willie Pyfrom, the retired director of the celebrated Glades Central High School marching band, from a dire illness. The bus, and its modern tools of knowledge, finally got rolling about two years ago.

Instead of passenger seats, the interior is lined along each side with formica counters, swivel seats and 17 computer terminals, interconnected and wired by satellite, WiFi and hot spot for the Internet. There’s a steady hum of a generator, keeping it all running.

From its base in a locked storage center in West Palm Beach, Fla., she rolls the bus on Mondays to an elementary school in rural Pahokee, where 3rd, 4th and 5th graders study science and math to prepare them for statewide standardized tests. On other days, she takes the vehicle to community centers in Lake Worth and Riviera Beach, where children as young as 3 and 4 climb aboard to learn basic skills of reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.

Source: NBC Nightly News

Source: NBC Nightly News

The kids will board the bus in shifts of 30 or 45 minutes, about 80 kids in all in the course of a day.

When she teaches preschools, Pyfrom insists a parent sit alongside. Together, a mom and a child will look at the same computerized lessons on adjoining screens: cheery exercises in primary colors that ask the kids to identify letters of the alphabet with sounds they hear over a pair of headphones.

Many of the children are brand new to computers. Some don’t know how to use a mouse. In those cases, the kids will point to the answer on the screen; the moms will click the mouse for them.

The parental involvement is a big part of it, Pyfrom believes. She gives parents the children’s pass codes, so they can continue the lessons at home if they have the Internet. Many don’t. In those cases, she hands out applications for a Comcast program providing low-income households with Internet service for $10 a month and notebook computers for $149 — affordable bridges across the digital divide.

“It allows them to spend quality time with the kids,” she says, “and this whole process is helping the kids with their readiness skills. Because if you put a kid in school and they’re ready to learn, they’re going to move.”

Robbie Everett, a media specialist at Pahokee Elementary School, is very glad that Pyfrom’s been bringing her bus up State Road 80 and parking it in the school parking lot each Monday. The school has a computer lab, but with only enough space for students to attend once a week. With the bus, many children double their access to computers to twice a week.

“It really helps our kids,” said Everett, who had Pyfrom as her 4th-grade teacher and then knew her as a school-district colleague. “The children love it. They really love it.” One thing they love is the chance to play games. But the lessons are slyly rigged; to play a game, you have to get an answer right the first time. On Estella’s Brilliant Bus, you can bet those kids are concentrating on the questions.

All the while, the computers are generating detailed readouts showing children’s progress through the specific skills required in Florida standards: root words, content clues, synonyms, and the like. Children need a 90 percent score to move to the next level, or else repeat the lesson. According to Pyfrom, the readouts are recording an accumulating account of student progress.

How long will she keep this up? “I’m going to do it for as long as I can afford to do it,” she says. At $400 just to fill up the tank with diesel, her money won’t last forever — maybe two years. By then, she hopes, she’ll get enough help from grants or individual donations to continue. Her health, at least, is not an issue. “I’m blessed. I get up every morning, I feel good. I don’t have aches and pains.”

DSC_0008She gets incalculable help from Patrick Morris, a drug-rehab counselor who works at night so he can spend his days volunteering to keep her computers running, her motor purring and do the driving.

Why so dedicated? Morris answers with a self-effacing shrug. “It’s a need,” he says, “and I’m in a position to help.”

Pyfrom and her bus are attracting recognition (thanks in part to free publicity and social-media services provided by the Small Business Development Center at Palm Beach State College).

Last week, she was the subject of a terrific segment on the NBC Nightly News. (See it here. It’s not to be missed.)

She has used the experiences of her life to forge a philosophy: “You make your breaks and you determine your own destiny. You work hard and make things happen for yourself — and don’t use what you don’t have as an excuse.”

She expresses that philosophy in a converted coach with slogans painted on its sides: “Have Knowledge Will Travel.” “We Bring Learning To You.”

“We’re going to keep rolling,” Estella Pyfrom says.

– Story and photos by Howard Goodman

Want to help Estella’s Brilliant Bus? Click here.

Miami-Dade wins Broad Prize for most-improved district

The Miami-Dade School District — an IFL partner — has won the Broad Prize, given to the district deemed to be the nation’s most improved urban school system.

The nation’s fourth-largest school district with 350,000 students, Miami-Dade was singled out for several reasons: increased percentages of Hispanic and black students achieving advanced levels on state exams; improved participation and performance on the SAT; a higher graduation rate for black and Hispanic students, especially especially between 2006-09, when it grew by 14 percentage points.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the $550,000 prize, to be used for college scholarships, in New York City on Tuesday.

Three other school districts, named as finalists, won $150,000 each in scholarships: Corona-Norco, Calif; Houston; and Palm Beach County, Fla.

This was the fifth year that Miami-Dade was a finalist for the award.

“What is encouraging about Miami-Dade is its sustainable improvement over time,” Eli Broad, founder of The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which awards The Broad Prize, said in a press release.

“Their gains are a testament to the hard-working teachers, administrators and parents who have embraced innovative new methods to modernize schools and ensure that students of all backgrounds get the support they need. There is still a long way to go before all American students graduate with the skills and knowledge they need to thrive in a global economy, but Miami-Dade’s progress serves as an example for other urban districts across the country.”

Innovations for Learning is expanding its presence in the Miami-Dade district, growing from a pilot program last year. Children in 30 classrooms in nine schools will be using the TeacherMate digital program to learn how to read, aided by volunteers in the TutorMate program, which recruits office workers to connect with schoolchildren for weekly tutoring sessions via telephone and computer.

Details about Miami-Dade’s achievement gains can be found in this Broad Prize announcement.  A video of the award ceremony is to be posted here.

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