I’m not sure which I found more intriguing: the fact that a virtual school principal has made finalist for the prestigious Principal of the Year award, or that virtual schools are a real school choice for families in Florida.
I met Christopher McGuire at his finalist interview. He leads Broward Virtual Schools (BVS), one of the best of its kind in the nation. BVS is online school 2.0 version, reaching over 15,000 kids last year alone and changing the landscape of choice for families. It crosses the barriers of neighborhood, offers more class options than a brick and mortar school, is available 24/7 for ALL students.
And, Chris McGuire is just as starry-eyed as I am about the possibilities.
Tell me about your journey to BVS.
I started out as a teacher at the elementary school I attended. Around that time software started emerging on how you can enhance and differentiate your instruction… help kids hear things in a different voice, see things in a different way which was much different from a lecture.
When I became Assistant Principal at Oriole Elementary we invested heavily in technology and using it for skill-building, not replacing instruction from a teacher. The human brain gets tired of saying the same thing over and over, computers never do. So the kids could work on a particular skill, hear it as many times as they needed, until they got it.
We were a “D”, and in the 4th year I was there, we got to 13 points from an “A.” We knew technology resources played a part in getting our kids to reach proficiency.
Over the years I remained involved in technology in various roles. When the position came available the job description was intriguing. To not just focus on one neighborhood, but I could work with children around the entire district. All the possibilities that could come from that were, and still are, very exciting to me.
At the start BVS was fledgling. But, if you set out to do good things for kids…if that’s the objective, then everything else you can figure out.
How do you see BVS in the school choice matrix?
Being a school of choice changes the approach entirely. It’s not “take it or leave it”. If you don’t have good things to offer children, nobody will enroll. They don’t have to enroll.
A lot schools feared this at first, thinking school enrollment would fall because students now had this option. But the fact is most children want to be in school, and most parents want their kids in school. It took a few years to lower that threat. The vision is to give kids the alternative to take a course which may not be offered in their school. I had to educate my peers that BVS was not competing with traditional school. We are trying to provide an alternative for kids who would need it.
What is the role of the teacher?
Virtual teachers are special. Obviously, they have to love kids and be proficient in their course content. But they also have to be able to engage kids without seeing them. It’s an unbelievable skill. And, they have to be accessible to students all around the district, not just in a particular neighborhood. It’s powerful to breakdown the geographical barriers.
Our students tell us they speak with their teachers more often than when they were in traditional school. It seems counter-intuitive, but a student can float from class to class, never raising their hand. We get to know our kids, they feel uninhibited to talk to their teachers or not embarrassed to ask a question or to participate.
Our primary mission is to make sure students have a quality online experience, as opposed to a watered down version. We require participation and students can’t get through the course without contact with their teacher.
When you don’t see kids everyday, you run the risk of missing a lot. So, we have labs in every high school. The teacher comes in twice a week to do hands on experiments and activities. We also combined social growth experiences with academic activities to offer writing and math seminars (not test prep). And, our full-time students have monthly meetings and a school advisory council. The kids love it…they absolutely love it.
What are the challenges of a virtual school environment?
There was a virtual charter school which closed and when the kids came to us the gaps were unbelievable. This could go terribly wrong if not done well. The checkpoints are necessary.
I will not be a part of a child being under-educated. I just wouldn’t do it.
If it’s not working, we are not going to hold on to your child in virtual school; you will have to think of another option. We have compulsory attendance in the state and we have parents who are not necessarily in tune with what their responsibilities are to ensure their children are properly prepared to go from elementary to middle, middle to high, etc. We will not be a part of that.
What are your hopes for BVS?
When our students understand that there is a choice and they take advantage of it time and time again, we are really beginning to level the playing field.