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Teachers trade chalk for keyboard

Nearly 2,500 students this school year are taking such courses as calculus and history through Florida Online High School.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 5, 2001

[Times photo: Joseph Garnett Jr.]
History teacher Melissa Kelly, who offers courses through Florida Online High School, plays with her 7-month-old son, Ty.
HUDSON -- Like many other educators, history teacher Melissa Kelly spends countless hours at her kitchen table grading papers, planning lessons and revamping her syllabus.

That's where the similarities end.

She says her 10th-grade students are some of the most focused, respectful teenagers she has ever encountered. Sure she has kids who need prodding, but most complete every assignment and turn them in on time.

She has no class clown constantly interrupting, and she'll never step between two students slugging it out in the hallway. She doesn't help monitor the cafeteria during lunch, and she'll never again wrangle with a student over whether the teen's miniskirt violates the school's dress code.

Heck, Kelly's school doesn't even have a dress code. Her kids could be in their skivvies and it wouldn't make a whiff of difference to her.

Kelly never actually sees her students. Her class meets only in cyberspace.

She's one of about 60 teachers statewide teaching courses via the Internet for the Florida Online High School, one of the nation's largest experiments in electronic schooling. This school year, almost 2,500 students are enrolled in 4,200 courses ranging from personal fitness to college-level calculus.

"Online learning isn't for everybody," said Kelly, who last year taught Advanced Placement history at River Ridge High School. "I've got so many kids who are awesome, and I have others where it's a struggle just to get them to turn in an assignment."

The online school started in 1996 as a joint project between school districts in Orange and Alachua counties. The Legislature financed the project at a cost so far of $15.6-million. As of November 2000, 7,974 students have taken classes online, 103 of them in Pasco County.

Kelly works from a laptop computer she often sets up on her kitchen table. She remains an employee of the Pasco County School District, even though only one of her current students attends school here. The Florida Online High School -- called FHS for short -- reimburses Pasco for Kelly's salary and benefits, which are the same as for other Pasco teachers with similar experience.

Kelly's class has no textbook. Students download their class reading materials and assignments from the FHS Web site. The materials include traditional textbooklike articles, multimedia videos and electronic discussion groups.

Students complete their assignments at their own pace and submit them via e-mail or fax, Kelly said. Then, as in a traditional class, Kelly grades the work, jots down her comments and returns it to the student with suggestions for improvement.

Kelly said she tries to phone her students weekly, and they must pass a final oral exam to earn course credit. It may sound impersonal, but Kelly said she feels like she has gotten to know each of her students as well as she did when they were sitting in front of her. In some cases she knows them better.

At the start of each course, students write a personal biography to help their teachers get to know them and to help soften the impersonal nature of the Internet. Some of the students wrote pages-long essays about who they are and what makes them tick.

"I feel closer to some of them than I did in the classroom," Kelly said.

Kim Falato, an 11th-grader at Land O'Lakes High, is taking two classes online this year: American Government and SAT preparation. She said teachers are great about responding to her questions quickly.

"It's very easy to get help if you have a question. You can write to them through e-mail, and they respond in a short amount of time.You can call them, and sometimes they even give out their personal cellular number," Falato said in an e-mail.

Some groups, however, have questioned whether real learning can take place in cyberspace. Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's largest teachers unions, have recently stated doubts about the effectiveness of online classes.

Falato said her online classes aren't pushovers.

"I spend about three to five hours a week taking my online classes, and the assignments are equally challenging to those of a regular day school," she said.

The College Board, the non-profit organization of universities that administers college entrance tests, said it fears that poor and minority students won't have access to the computers necessary to access online education.

Jay Feliciani, Pasco's point person for the district's participation with FHS, said he doesn't think online schools will replace traditional ones. But, he said, it does open doors for lots of motivated kids who are disciplined enough to handle the independence that online learning requires.

"It's one more learning tool, one more opportunity we can provide to kids," Feliciani said. "We're not seeing huge numbers of kids flock to this, but we are seeing motivated kids" using the program.

Kelly said the hardest part of teaching online was breaking her mind-set that education must revolve around the teacher's schedule and deadlines. Kelly now has no set working hours.

She spends much of her day caring for her newborn son and does a lot of her teaching in the evening and on weekends. She gets 31 days off each year (not including weekends), compared with the roughly 75 days off a traditional classroom teacher would get. Her FHS pager has her in constant contact with students.

"It breaks all the rules for a teacher," Kelly said.

Complicating the job is the fact that students can enroll in a course at any time and may take up to 36 weeks to complete it. So not only does Kelly have 105 students, she has 105 students at different stages in the curriculum. Some are flying through the course and will finish in 18 weeks. Others are taking their time.

"It's very student centered," she said. "They work at their own pace."

The job has its perks, too.

"I don't have students cussing me out or coming in late and disrupting the class," she said.

So who are Kelly's students? Most are typical high school kids in classes that either aren't offered at their school or that they couldn't fit into their schedules, she said.

She has a good number of students attending private school, while many others are home-schooled.

One of her students is a child actor whose work schedule keeps him from attending traditional classes; another has agoraphobia (a fear of public places); others are aspiring athletes who spend much of their time on the golf course or tennis court.

One of the toughest parts of the job doesn't even have anything to do with teaching.

"It's remembering to get up and exercise because you're in front of the computer for hours at a time," she said.

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