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Manatee may start a virtual school

MANATEE — Imagine a school with no walls or dress codes. If you’re a student, imagine rolling out of bed in the morning and going to class while munching your breakfast in your pajamas — at home.

Under a state law passed last year, the Manatee County school board will be starting its own virtual school soon. But depending on another bill being discussed this session, the opening of the cyber school could be delayed for another year.

On Thursday, three Manatee County school board members heard district administrators’ plan on how they would roll out a virtual school in 2009-10.

Already, district officials report that 40 parents have expressed interest in the concept this year. Officials also projected 200 students would enroll in the cyber school if it’s up and running next year.

But board members and Superintendent Tim McGonegal raised questions about the cost and how it will affect other traditional schools, many of which are struggling with a declining enrollment.

A law passed last June requires school districts to offer parents and students a full-time virtual elementary school program. In Manatee, officials hope to set up a full-time online school for kindergartners to eighth-graders, and a full-time or part-time program for high school students.

Some high school students are already taking classes through the Florida Virtual School, said Verdya Bradley, the district’s supervisor of innovative programs. Students who are in juvenile detention or dropout prevention programs, or students wanting to take Advance Placement courses that aren’t offered in the traditional high schools, have completed courses online.

The new virtual school the district is planning would allow a student to take all classes online, she said. Students will still have to take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, and the virtual school will still be graded like the traditional schools.

Most likely, the district will contract out the running of the cyber school to a state approved provider, said Lynette Edwards, assistant superintendent of curriculum. The provider would supply the materials and teachers, and one will even loan computers to students.

Offering students a virtual school would cost the district about $1,000 more a student, she said. Most providers charge about $4,850, and the base allocation for a student from the state is $3,880. District officials are negotiating a lower price with the providers.

McGonegal is also concerned about how the cyber school will affect the district’s traditional campuses when student enrollment is stagnant.

“This is the future of instruction, I have no doubt about it,” he said. “But the 200 students come from our own population. By adding a school, all our schools will be left insufficient.”

Jane Pfeilsticker, school board member, said that may cause the district to consider a round of redistricting unless the district’s student enrollment picks up soon. She also noted that online classes are not for everyone.

Bradley assured board members that most parents would have to go through an orientation before their children start classes. Going to school at home doesn’t mean there won’t be any supervision.

“Adults have to be involved,” Bradley said. “Particularly in the K-8 program. Can you imagine a kindergartner sitting at the computer all day? They will have offline activities and parents will have to work with those students.”

McGonegal said he will wait to see whether lawmakers will pass the proposed legislation that would allow districts to delay the implementation of the virtual school program for another year before making his recommendations to board members.

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