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Virtual Schools in Florida, New Hampshire, to Add Blended Models

Two prominent providers of full-time virtual education, including Florida's largest hub of online K-12 classes, will look to add physical spaces to deliver face-to-face instructional programs after receiving grants earlier this month from a group called Next Generation Learning Challenges.

"We're getting into the space game," said Amanda Mann, the competitive grants manager at the state-run Florida Virtual School.

Nationally, there's a huge push for more "blended" learning options that allow students to do work both online and face-to-face, with the help of a teacher. But generally, the momentum, and money, has flowed in the other direction, towards traditional brick-and-mortar schools and districts looking to add an online component.

The vast majority of the 38 new NGLC grantees, including the Danville Independent Schools in Kentucky and KIPP charters' Bay Area Schools in California, meet that description.

"There's a lot of interest [among traditional school districts and brick-and-mortar charters] in applying station-rotation models and blended strategies, which broaden the range of when, how, and what students can learn," said Sarah Luchs, the K-12 program officer for Next Generation Learning Challenges.

The notion of adding face-to-face programs at full-time virtual schools, many of which have come under withering criticism for poor academic performance and high student turnover, is comparatively new.

With its new $150,000 planning grant, FLVS, which currently operates a full-time virtual school in partnership with the for-profit Connections Academy and provides individual online classes to thousands of students across in traditional schools across Florida, aims to lay the groundwork for a statewide network of "community learning centers" where both students and non-students can go to "attend a TED talk, work one-on-one with an adult, or collaborate with peers and adults," among other things.

The Virtual Learning Academy Charter School in New Hampshire, which CEO Stephen Kossakoski said enrolls about 10,000 students, received a $450,000 grant to implement a blended model. Their program will focus on providing students with real-world opportunities to demonstrate competency across a variety of subjects.

"We will have students in face-to-face traditional environments when that makes sense, in the workplace when that makes sense, and out in world exploring when that makes sense, plus we will still offer the value and advantages of online flexible learning as well," Kossakoski said.

Luchs, of NGLC, said her group is focused on promoting the "best of both worlds."

"If we're seeing online providers that have strength [in virtual education], we're interested in pairing them up with face-to-face options to create that ideal scenario," she said.

Pam Birtolo, Florida Virtual's chief officer of educational transformation, said the move to add a blended option is something her virtual district has long considered. Birtolo said FLVS will still offer a full-time virtual option.

"Over our 17 years, we have always claimed that one size doesn't fit all," she said.

Birtolo said technological advances now make it more possible to offer truly customizable learning options to students. A new "recommendation engine" that the district is developing will continually assess what standards student need to learn, how the student might best learn those standards, and which topics or concepts might make the material most interesting to each individual student.

"We believe...that through all kinds of assessing and technological monitoring, we can help each student design the learning that they truly need," she said.

All told, Next Generation Learning Challenges awarded $6.6 million in grants in July. Those funds in turn came from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (The Gates Foundation also provides support for Education Week's coverage of industry and innovation.)

Follow @BenjaminBHerold and @EdWeekEdTech for the latest news on ed tech policies, practices, and trends.

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