Mom was right: I love online learning

As a homeschool student, Kelsey Gray didn’t like history or English. Math was even worse. Each year, the curriculum grew more difficult – finally prompting her mom, Mendy Gray, a former public schoolteacher, to seek alternatives.

She turned to other homeschoolers, who shared a secret: Florida Virtual School.

Kelsey Gray's mom introduced the teen to online education, a few classes at a time.
Kelsey Gray’s mom introduced the teen to online education, a few classes at a time.

The 16-year-old online education program, the largest in the country, offers more than 120 courses from Algebra to Sociology. Classes are taught by certified teachers and available for free to K-12 students enrolled in public, private and charter schools – and even home schools.

More than 149,000 students participated in Florida Virtual School part-time, taking up to five classes, in 2011-12, the most recent figures available. Of those students, 23 percent were homeschoolers with the rest attending district, charter or private schools.

The option appealed to Mendy, who wanted her daughter to learn at her own pace at home. Kelsey, 13 at the time, started off slow, signing up as a part-time virtual student and taking language arts and U.S. history.

Her first thought: “I actually have a teacher. I’m scared.’’

Mom tried to reassure her. Virtual education is a perfect complement to homeschooling, she said. You’ll like it.

Mom was right.

“The courses weren’t that hard,’’ Kelsey said. “They were right where I needed them to be.’’

Today, the 17-year-old senior, who estimates she has a 3.5 GPA, takes Advanced Placement English, guitar and geometry through Florida Virtual School. Last semester, she studied history and science.

The program also offers extracurricular activities. Kelsey participates in the Performing Arts Club, Student Ambassadors, the Newspaper Club, a creative writing club and the only online chapter of the National English Honor Society.

She learned she loves English, after all.

“I don’t want to be put into a mold that I have to do this because everybody else is doing this,’’ said the voracious writer, who hopes to attend the University of Tampa and pen fantasy novels. “It’s important to learn my way.’’

Most days, her school schedule resembles that of traditional students, with the first class starting around 9:30 a.m. The difference: After breakfast, Kelsey goes back to her bedroom to work on her laptop. Sometimes she moves to the porch. Sometimes it’s the kitchen table.

School can be anywhere.

School can even go on vacation. Kelsey can take classes by the swimming pool. And if she needs to take time off, say for a mission trip, she just emails her teachers with the dates she’ll be gone. When she returns, “everything is right where I left it.’’

If she doesn’t understand something, Kelsey reaches out to her teachers, who quickly respond. They also call her parents once a month to discuss her progress.

“The teachers are wonderful,’’ Kelsey said. “They’re there to help you out.’’

Some courses, like geometry, feature videos that walk students through the problem-solving process – a good option for Kelsey, who describes herself as a visual learner.

She can work as long as she likes, usually until 3 or 4 p.m., and take breaks when she needs them. There still are pop-quizzes and exams to ensure she has completed and comprehended her studies, with some tests given orally via phone.

When Kelsey took a virtual P.E. course that allowed her to incorporate the use of Wii Fit or an impromptu game of tag, she had to fill out an exercise log.

“It’s an integrity-based program,’’ Mendy said. “They really count on the fact that you are doing what you say you are doing.’’

Another plus: Kelsey has classmates from across the country – and around the world. One’s in Kentucky, another in Malaysia. They’ve become friends.

“That’s one of the cool things about Florida Virtual,’’ her mom said. “It’s portable.’’

Kelsey’s parents were both public school students. They never saw themselves as homeschoolers and they never imagined their children would be taking classes online.

But “we just weren’t comfortable’’ with traditional schools, Mendy said. She feared her daughter would get lost in the shuffle.

Even as graduation looms for Kelsey, the family’s experience with the program continues with her sisters, Monica, 15, and Kayley, 13.

Kelsey, meanwhile, has become an ambassador for online learning.

She talked up Florida Virtual School in a video for the Foundation for Florida’s Future. And she recently participated in a panel discussion in Tampa, marking National School Choice Week with Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett and Hillsborough schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia.

“I am in love with this school choice,’’ Kelsey told the crowd. “Mom can say it – she told us so.’’

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BY Sherri Ackerman

Sherri Ackerman is the former associate editor of redefinED. She is a former correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times and reporter for The Tampa Tribune, writing about everything from cops and courts to social services and education. She grew up in Indiana and moved to Tampa as a teenager, graduating from Brandon High School and, later, from the University of South Florida with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications/news editing. Sherri passed away in March 2016.