FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) — Alabama educators have long known that online classes provide experience and preparation students need for life after high school, either for college or the workforce.
But the state has never done much more than suggest schools implement them in the curriculum, until now. Under the state's new diploma requirements, which go into effect this fall and begin with incoming ninth-graders, there's a required college and career preparedness course that incorporates computer applications.
Though Alabama schools have discretion as to how to implement that part of the career preparedness course, online classes will likely become more commonplace, according to Alabama Department of Education officials.
"In the past, it was suggested that schools encourage that online (course) experience because in today's world it is needed, but it wasn't an actual mandate," said Malissa Valdes-Hubert, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Education. "We just left it up to schools to recognize the need and incorporate it into their curriculums. But now it's a firm part of the college and career preparedness course."
While area high schools don't require online courses for graduation, there's interest in making those options readily available to students.
Online courses have been a trend in the Southeast for more than a decade.
According to data collected by the Southern Regional Education Board, it's so popular among the 16 Southern states that 15 of them have sponsored a state-run virtual school, with 11 of them having done so for six years or more. Alabama is among those with the ACCESS program, which equips schools with computer labs to accommodate online learning.
But with the interest in state-run virtual schools waning, the number of local school districts providing online courses is increasing.
This fall Florence High School will join those ranks as it begins the Florence Virtual School, with numerous online course offerings across the curriculum.
Superintendent Janet Womack called the virtual school a franchise based on what the state is doing with ACCESS distance learning. The difference is that instead of educators in other school districts across the state teaching, only Florence teachers will teach Florence High School students.
"We know we can control the teaching quality when it's our own teachers but you don't have that control when they're across the state," Womack said.
Nearly every course with the exception of foreign languages and courses with lab components may be taught through the virtual school.
"Today's students need options, so if they want to take an online English course at 10 p.m., they have that choice," she said. "We see this as an opportunity for our students to stretch their limits and accomplish well beyond what's ever been possible before."
School districts that haven't offered online courses are adding a more structured online component to their curriculum, such as with the new college and career readiness course.
Muscle Shoals High School Principal Brian Lindsey said school administrators are working out the dynamics of that diploma requirement.
He said the course will likely be handled in one semester because the school is on a block system. There are no online courses offered at the high school but, "we can certainly see the value in it," he said.
Sheffield High School offers five online courses through the school's ACCESS computer lab, which allows students to take courses they need that are no longer offered locally, such as physics, marine science and upper level Spanish and Latin.
Guidance Counselor Melissa Ryan said she believes in online courses for high school students.
"These students have to be prepared to utilize online resources because the first couple of years of college will certainly be heavily computer-based," she said.
About 30 Sheffield students have taken online courses this year.
"These are students who otherwise wouldn't have had access to these courses, so it's always a good thing," Ryan said. "We'll be learning more about the new requirement, but we certainly see it as a needed opportunity for students."