Manatee County Schools virtual class launch proves successful

ataylor@bradenton.comOctober 20, 2011 

MANATEE -- When teacher Aimee Booth awakes in the morning, she doesn’t have far to go to her office. She need only sit in front of her computer -- a far cry from the brick and mortar classroom she taught in for 10 years in Manatee County.

Today, Booth is a teacher in one of Manatee County School District’s latest ventures -- online learning. The district launched its Internet franchise, which is connected to parent company Florida Virtual School, earlier this year. The new venture is called eTech of Manatee.

Booth is one of more than 1,000 teachers who work full-time in connection with Florida Virtual School. The parent company is considered an award-winning success. When other online ventures launched and failed, Florida Virtual soared to a successful $120-million a year operation that has existed for 15 years. Florida Virtual was called the top virtual education provider in the nation by the Center for Digital Education.

Booth and district officials say the Manatee launch also has been a success. Middle and high school science, math and language arts are being offered. Courses cost $50 per class per student.

“We knew we wanted to start small,” said Verdya Bradley, associate director of Manatee County Schools innovative programs and parental options.

Seven other teachers were hired for the virtual school and 225 students have signed up. That’s considered a modest start tied to the massive online school that has an enrollment that includes 41 of Florida’s 67 school districts. Students from 49 states and 46 countries from throughout the world take part in the program.

District officials say local students prefer to attend an online class in addition to taking courses at a district school. Others are home schooled and take advantage of the new virtual school. Then, there’s a small group that are eTech exclusive.

Parents and students are requesting the district offer more classes. In January, Spanish will be added, Bradley said.

Booth works from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and she loves it. She calls the interaction between parent and students refreshing.

“You get to know them more and have more contact with parents,” Booth said. “There’s so much that’s different.”

Booth teaches three middle school math classes. The most challenging part of the job for her is convincing students to call when they have questions. She said she has to figure out students’ comfort levels and determine if they prefer calling, texting or emailing her with questions.

“For them to be successful, they have to have that interaction with the teacher,” Booth added.

She believes online education is suited to a particular target audience.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a one-size fits all,” she added.

For teachers who have taught inside the traditional class settings, online education takes some getting used to.

“It’s a different kind of management and reaching out to the student,” she said. “They have access to class 24/7. You have to make the students feel comfortable enough to contact you.”

--Florida Trend Magazine contributed to this report

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