Tips for starting a virtual school

The February issue of District Administration magazine features an article about Diane Lewis, Director of Instructional Technology at the Seminole County Public School System. In 2007, Diane was tasked with the opportunity and challenge of bringing online learning to her school district. After two years of effort, Diane and her small staff launched an online program with both full-time and part-time options for students in Seminole County. In the article, Diane offers, “Lewis’ Tips for Starting Your Own Virtual School.” Many of her tips rang true to me from my work as an online program administrator, consultant and researcher. Below I offer Diane’s tips with some of my own comments.

“Check your state law for restrictions. Be sure you understand what is allowed, and how funding could be or will be generated.”

The funding for online education is unique to each state.  This is particularly challenging if you prefer to start a full-time program that enrolls a significant number of students from outside your district. In many instances, you may not receive the full funding for out-of-district students that you have come to expect from your in-district students. If you start a part-time or blended program to serve only your district’s students, you will need to take the time to understand all the costs associated with your program, so you can seek district funding to support the online educational services needed for a quality program.

“Be clear about your purpose. Do you want to run a full-time school or offer only select courses? Are you trying to attract home-schooled students or only those enrolled in your district already?”

Although you may be tempted to tackle a variety of student needs simultaneously, some of the most successful programs I have seen had a targeted purpose in the first year or two, such as credit recovery, advanced courses or some other student need. This allowed them to focus and generate positive student outcomes early in the evolution of the program. Then over time, many programs expand to effectively serve additional student needs.

“Choose your curriculum carefully. Look for curriculum that is aligned to your standards and is engaging for students. Avoid curriculum that is just text online with little to no interaction.”

Online curriculum has evolved and improved rapidly over the past five years. Whether you plan to build, buy, or lease online curriculum, you should establish a team of experts within your district to serve as reviewers of commercial-based content or possible developers of your own content. Look for team members with content expertise, online instructional design expertise, and web development experience.

“Be sure the person you choose to lead the virtual school is passionate about its value. Then discuss whether you want to hire and manage your own teachers, or outsource. Hiring your own teachers provides more quality control but may require more financial commitment.”

As with any new, innovative program, leadership is critically important.  Online learning can bring changes within a district that may not be supported by everyone. A strong leader can show the benefits for all, especially the students, and get everyone moving in the same direction. The instructional staffing choice can be challenging and is influenced by the available start-up funding.  If you are able to hire your own teachers, whether full-time or part-time, be sure to tap into teachers in your district who experienced success with online learning or educational technology in their classrooms. Supporting these innovative teachers can help you garner support for these new student options.

“Be sure to hire a data clerk who can keep meticulous records. All funding comes back to record keeping.”

I would add that this staff member is also critical because this person often serves as the front line customer service person who communicates with all types of online program stakeholders, including students, teachers, parents, and others. The value of having a positive problem-solver in this role cannot be emphasized enough.

“Don't expect to break even financially in your first year. Growing your school large enough to cover all expenses may take a couple of years.”

This advice on fiscal patience is certainly appropriate, especially in cases where you are starting a full-time school.

In addition to these valuable tips, there are many more issues to consider when starting or growing your district’s online program. I’ll tackle some of these issues in future blog posts.