ST. PETERSBURG — High school seniors this year will be the first class required to have completed an online course before they can graduate, and nearly one in three may have to squeeze it in during their final year.
So now some students, like 16-year-old Kelley Brenes' classmates at Sickles High in Tampa, are scrambling to fulfill that requirement in between college applications and upper-level coursework.
“Our teachers are always telling us to hurry up and get our online class out of the way, and there are a lot of seniors who still haven't yet, to be honest,” Brenes said. “If you're motivated and know what's important to get done first, then they're pretty easy. We just have to get it done.”
Brenes, a junior, is taking Spanish II and driver education online through Florida Virtual School and working around her swim team practice after school.
State legislators passed the Digital Learning Act in 2011, adding completion of one online courses to the list of high school graduation requirements. The more than 200,000 seniors across Florida looking to graduating in 2015 were freshmen when that law was enacted, and the first class affected by the law.
Pinellas County Virtual School, the district's own online public school, allows students to register for one to three courses part-time to meet the requirement, and last year had to limit registration due to a surge in enrollment of more than 101,000 students.
Hillsborough and Pasco counties have also ramped up their online school offerings in anticipation of a rush of seniors enrolling at the last minute.
Students can enroll in their district's online classes or Florida Virtual School, the official state online public school program. The virtual school offers more than 140 courses students can take at home, in blended models where they spend some time in traditional classrooms, or at their schools with instructors.
“If students start now, then completing an online course is very achievable, but they have to start now. There's no more waiting,” said Celeste Sanchez, Florida Virtual's district relations manager. “There are tons of courses they can take to get this done right now, especially since the law doesn't say they have to take a full, year-long course.”
The virtual school has seen an increase in the number of seventh- and eighth-grade students enrolling in high school level courses to get a jump on the new requirement. Students may enroll in courses throughout the year and work at their own pace, though there is a three-week minimum time requirement, Sanchez said.
Courses span from core academic courses to half-credit electives such as social media and theater, cinema and film. Students may take 14 Advanced Placement courses online, which also earns them college credits, as well as 40 new career and technical education courses like Java programming, which count toward industry certifications in their chosen career field. Gov. Rick Scott also approved an online driver's education course in June, Sanchez said.
“The online courses really make our students feel very empowered to learn on their own time schedule, to really interact with the material they're learning, and they become life-long learners this way,” Sanchez said.
While students should act as if the new law is set in stone, some school districts across the state are looking into the impact it will have on students who are struggling to graduate or have limited access to computers.
Pinellas School Board member Peggy O'Shea said she would like the district to look into how many seniors in the county may be at risk of delaying their high school graduation because they haven't taken an online course.
“I would hate to see any student who otherwise meets all the graduation requirements held back,” O'Shea said. “I don't know how much control we really have over that, but if we do I would like to look into any waivers or anything we can provide.”