It's a brave new world for rural students


Tracy Robinson, 14, cares for goats at home on the Double Eagle Farm, as part of her homeschooling routine, Tuesday, May 8, just north of Fort White.

Erica Brough/ Staff Photographer
Published: Sunday, June 17, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, June 16, 2012 at 10:10 p.m.

The lockers have been emptied, buses parked and classrooms closed for the summer in public schools across North Central Florida. But how many of the students will be back in August?

In public schools from Cedar Key to Palatka and from Lake City to Belleview, a paradigm shift is taking place in education — one that is most evident in rural schools but felt throughout the state.

As recently as 25 years ago, if you lived in a rural community in North Florida, you went to a public school in the town in which you lived, or your family paid to send you to a private school and arranged to get you there every day.

The public school scenario began noticeably changing about 1985, state and regional officials say, and the pace of change is accelerating. Families have more choices that offer broader horizons, and they are taking advantage of them.

Public education choices today include an array of options:

Traditional classes held in brick-and-mortar buildings.

Magnet schools that allow students to focus on a specific potential career field.

Home schools that can be conducted over a kitchen table.

Charter schools formed in a school district to offer an alternative to traditional education.

High school classes at a state or community college where students also earn college credit.

And, for those who could not find a school setting that worked for them when they were teens, there are adult education programs offered in a variety of settings day or night.

Then there is the real game changer — virtual classes that can be accessed anywhere with an Internet connection. Those virtual classes are offered free to state residents from kindergarten through high school.

During a recent visit to Levy County, Florida Public School Chancellor Pam Stewart told Superintendent Robert Hastings that she didn't know what the future of education would be for Florida.

“But what she and I agreed on was that there is an evolution, and we (the public schools in Florida's 67 counties) are not the only game in town anymore,” Hastings said.

Online education full time

The Sunshine State jumped into online education in 1997 with seven teachers and 77 students. Enrollment initially doubled about every two years, then began doubling every year as the school that became known as the Florida Virtual School — FLVS — added more courses and more students found what they wanted or needed online.

The growth in FLVS came from some students who took online courses to avoid a specific teacher at their local school. Others who attended relatively small, rural schools with limited elective options or few advanced classes discovered they could learn French or take Advanced Placement courses through FLVS while remaining enrolled in their local high school. Still others needed to make up a class they failed in their local school.

By the end of the 2010-2011 school year (the last full year for which statistics are available), FLVS had 2,000 full-time students and 122,000 part-time students taking as many as three courses online while enrolled in another school full time.

This fall, FLVS will offer 125 courses, including high school staples such as geometry and popular electives such as introductory guitar classes.

Tania Clow, FLVS communications specialist, said 85 percent of students successfully complete the courses they enroll in. The online district is not paid by the state until a student completes a course.

FLVS has become so popular it will begin granting its own diplomas in 2013, making it possible for Florida teens to avoid a traditional classroom completely and still receive a diploma from a regionally accredited high school.

FLVS instructors can live anywhere as long as they are available to their students by phone and email between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Middle school science teacher Sheri Buchanan works from her northwest Gainesville home. The mother of three children — ages 10 and younger — began working part time with FLVS after 11 years as a teacher at Lincoln and Kanapaha middle schools.

“I love it. It's so rewarding,” Buchanan said. But “it's definitely more hours.”

Buchanan meets her new students and their parents during a mandatory welcome call. During the year, she will remain in contact with 180 to 200 students who might float in and out of classes. FLVS operates year-round, and students can proceed at their own pace.

By comparison, Buchanan would have contact with about 150 students during a nine-month school year in a traditional school.

Many of Buchanan's students come from small, rural schools.

“A lot of rural areas have small schools, favoritism,” Buchanan said. “If a negative impression is set, often the student can't break out of that mode. Or because the population is so small, there aren't many courses offered.”

Going to school at home

A slightly older, but nearly as popular, style of non-traditional education in Florida is home schooling.

Since 1985, home schooling has been protected under state laws. While no exact numbers exist on how many children are being taught at home, home schooling advocates and federal officials estimate that about 75,000 children between the ages of 5 and 17 are being home-schooled around the state, many in rural homes.

Those who support home schooling include Martha Robinson of Fort White. In addition to being the mother of four home-schooled children, Robinson is the District 3 director of the Florida Parent-Educators Association, a nonprofit, all-inclusive home school family association, and she maintains a website for rural, North Florida home schooling families at www.northfloridahomeschool.com.

“Both of my older kids finished their AA's (associate of art degrees) at the same time because they dual-enrolled. They already had two years of college done,” Robinson said.

Robinson's 18-year-old now is attending the University of Florida, while her 21-year-old is working on a master's degree at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Robinson, a widow, still is home-schooling her 16-year-old son, Stuart, and 14-year-old daughter, Tracy, on the family's 100-acre farm.

“I never knew normal people home-schooled,” Martha said. “I always thought it was the people on the fringes of life — but nope.”

The school day for Stuart and Tracy begins with hands-on lessons as they work with Robinson tending to their milking goats, the tilapia and koi fish they raise for retail sale and the hydroponically grown vegetables they eat.

The family then moves inside for the lessons that require books and computers. It's a schedule they follow for 12 months at a time.

“All year, they are learning lifelong lessons. A lot of home-schooled students run like the school year, nine months of books. We are looser learners. In our beginning years, we studied the classics — Latin, logic,” Robinson said. “Now we are focusing on the farm — science, agriculture, aquaculture. Doing research on our own teaches children to learn on their own — not be spoon-fed — to dig in, find out what interests them. It's a way different level of learning.”

Home schooling has allowed Stuart to explore a possible career option.

“Being home-schooled has given me experience in aquaculture and hydroponics. So I considered it — am still considering it — as a career,” said Stuart. “It allows me to explore it a little more. I like growing fish in large scale, growing the food. I think it's a growing market I would enjoy working in.”

Under state law, home-schooled children like Stuart and Tracy have a right to participate in sports and extracurricular activities at nearby public schools, and both children have friends who attend school in Fort White.

“I am into drama,” Tracy said. “But it's open to home-schoolers. I'm just missing hours of sitting in a classroom instead of actually doing something.”

The Robinson family has another social option, too. The Florida Parent-Educators Association offers ways for home schooling families to contact each other and also holds a statewide graduation and dance at the end of May for any home-schooled students who want to participate.

“All these home schooling experiences make the students more able to speak to people of all ages,” Robinson said.

Charter schools

Somewhere between home school and the traditional public school lies another option for Florida's students — the state's 519 charter schools.

Charter schools operate as nonprofit organizations that have a charter from a local school board to operate. Most were formed to address a specific need or perceived gap in educational opportunities within a community.

According to the website Floridacharterschools.com, publicly funded charter schools employed more than 8,000 certified teachers and served nearly 180,000 students statewide during this past school year. State laws require that charter schools meet the state's performance benchmarks, but otherwise they are given a great deal of autonomy.

Among the most successful charter schools in North Florida is a school in a rural community with no other elementary school options.

The nearly 13-year-old McIntosh Area School had an enrollment of almost 100 students this past year and recently earned the distinction of being the first charter school in Marion County to sign a 13-year agreement with the Marion County School Board.

The district typically has issued contracts for five years or less to charter schools. McIntosh school officials asked for an extended contract so they would have a better chance of securing funding — most likely from the federal government — for a new building.

The School Board considered the charter school's ongoing success as measured by such factors as FCAT scores and financial audits before granting the protracted agreement.

McIntosh school officials praised the school's multifaceted education, which includes broad exposure to topics and daily physical activities.

For example, this past year's first-graders learned to weave and play the recorder, were offered the chance to drive a bulldozer on career day and — with the rest of the student body — helped run a combined 4,592 miles on the one-eighth-mile track on campus.

“No kids here have weight issues,” said Michael Scott, the school's long-time physical education coach. “It's the only school in the state, I think, with a five-day-a-week physical education.”

Schools within schools

While a charter school can focus exclusively on one concern or aspect of education, public high schools have found a way to help students focus intensely on an area that interests them.

Sometimes called magnets or academies, these schools within a school are credited with giving students a running start toward a career.

In rural Gilchrist County, where dairy cows are reported to outnumber people, both county high schools offer specialities that interest many current students and future employers.

At Bell High School in the northern portion of the county, a well-respected health academy has been operating for years. Dozens of nurses, certified nursing assistants, paramedics and others who work in health professions around the region got their start at the academy.

On the other side of the Bell campus is a Junior ROTC program that regularly sends graduates directly into the armed forces or to colleges and universities on military scholarships.

On the southern end of the county is Trenton Middle-High School, home to a relatively new engineering program in which students recently created photocell energy panels and specialty vehicles.

Both Trenton and Bell also offer FFA/agriculture classes that provide students with basic skills and introductions to potential careers such as welding.

Exposure to a variety of occupations already has become lucrative for Trenton FFA member Amanda Williams.

She learned how to do some metalworking in an agriculture class and began doing etchings on metal.

“I first made them in FFA,” Amanda said. “They did well. Then the advisers wanted some. I couldn't keep giving them away.”

She has started selling her creations.

More than high school

Although there are now several ways to finish high school in North Central Florida, some people were unable or unwilling to stick it out and earn a high school diploma. For those who left school without a diploma, Florida offers Adult Basic Education and General Educational Development classes designed to lead to a state diploma.

The need for the classes is clear in several North Florida counties, including Bradford County.

According to state and local statistics, nearly 22 percent of Bradford County residents over age 25 — or about 3,800 people — do not have a high school diploma or GED. At least 19 percent of the county's households are at or below the poverty level — well above the state average of 13 percent. And the county's most recent unemployment rate was approaching 9 percent.

Adult Career Specialist Brad Bishop of the Bradford-Union Area Career Technical Center said a GED or high school diploma is valued at less than $15,000 annually in terms of anticipated wages, so students need to complete even more education to support themselves and their families.

Bishop estimated that 70 percent of all jobs now require at least some post-secondary training and that 40 percent require at least an associate degree.

The need for more education became clear to Maria Herbert, 32, many months ago when her son entered high school.

“He started high school, so I said, ‘I need to do something,' ” Herbert said.

After accepting her GED diploma during a ceremony at the technical center a few weeks ago, Herbert began planning for her next job. She said she would like to get a job in the state prison system because it has a complete benefits package, something she does not have in her current job as a waitress.

A co-worker who received her GED diploma alongside Herbert, Kristie Fowler, 23, said the possibility of getting a job with benefits motivated her to work on her GED.

“We aren't going to make any more money by working at the prison, but with benefits, it's worth it,” Fowler said.

Bishop said anyone who has been considering returning to school to work on a GED has another reason to take the step now instead of waiting.

The state will begin using a new GED test on Jan. 1, 2014, that will be more challenging.

“There is a big push to get it done quickly,” Bishop said.

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