SHREVEPORT, La. (AP) — As Southwood High School Principal Jeff Roberts sat next to his fellow principals for a virtual school sales pitch three years ago, he said he couldn't sign up for the program fast enough.
"I remember most of the people in the room being pretty skeptical, but I couldn't help but get excited about it," Roberts said.
That speaker was a representative from E2020, an online school program used by more than half a million students nationwide. Since its creation in 2002 the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company has become the leading provider of online courses for many of the nation's school districts.
After the pitch, Roberts said he was hooked, and found money within his school's general budget for the online program.
Today, with 300 students enrolled in virtual classes Southwood is considered a leader in Caddo Schools for use of the program.
In a time where virtual schools are drawing Louisiana's students at a faster pace than schools leaving for private or charter programs, Roberts said offering virtual classes is a necessary for the survival of traditional public school systems. But while districts are intrigued by the idea, funding remains a hurdle.
Roberts said Southwood students are so enthralled, the school expanded the program this year and created an all-day virtual classroom — a virtual school within the traditional school.
"We have students that take one class here and a few that will go as far as to take all of their classes online," said E2020 classroom teacher Sandra Wilson.
Roberts said the program is keeping his students on track and will lead to an increase in the percentage of students graduating from Southwood.
"This has done so much for us," Roberts said. "Our students are making up classes they've failed sometimes in a matter of weeks, and because of that graduating on time with their classmates."
The program also can help with problems that could potentially derail an otherwise successful student. Southwood senior Tedell Benjamin was three weeks into the school year before administrators discovered a scheduling error meant he lacked the required number of math courses needed to graduate. Benjamin said his guidance counselor enrolled him in the E2020 financial math program, and he enjoys it.
"At first I was skeptical because I didn't know of anyone else who had taken it and I figured math might be kind of hard on a computer, but it's been pretty cool," Benjamin said.
In addition to working in the virtual school at Southwood, he also is able to access videos and tutorials online.
"I can do everything around my work schedule and in my own time," Benjamin said.
About 54 E2020 courses — ranging from credit recovery English and math courses to advanced placement math and world history — are now available to all Caddo sixth through 12th graders.
"We're really trying to thoughtfully reach students who can benefit or prefer virtual education." said Rosemary Woodard, Caddo Schools' head of assessment.
Woodard oversees many virtual programs and is working closely with district officials to craft an expansion of virtual offerings for next fall.
As part of Gov. Bobby Jindal's education reform package, the Louisiana Department of Education is encouraging schools and companies to offer course choice to students statewide. Course choice allows students to take individual courses online, face-to-face or in a blended version from a variety of vendors including school districts. Students attending C, D or F-rated public schools may take the courses free of charge.
So far, Caddo and Bossier Schools are offering a combined total of 34 courses either online or in a combination of in-classroom and virtually. DeSoto and Webster schools opted out for the 2013-2014 school year.
"We decided we could be on the front end of this and bring the programs we know we can do exceptionally or we could sit back and do nothing," said Sallie Naime, Bossier Schools' assistant superintendent of academics. "We chose to really take this and make it our own it."
Bossier will offer 30 of the area's 34 programs with subjects including graphic design, accounting and Louisiana folklore. Caddo is starting out with four sciences courses — biology, chemistry, physics and physical science — offered online to determine how the district should expand.
But in the interim, Woodard said there are challenges to districts expanding virtual programs.
"In a perfect world, I would love to see the district open up a school with virtual classrooms with certified teacher readily available to students, but the reality is that funding is a major hurdle," Woodard said.
While state superintendent of education John White touts the need for virtual options and district technology, the state is not offering districts the money to develop online programs.
"We can't do any of this without funding," said Webster Superintendent Steve Dozier. "All of these programs sound great until you find out there's not a way to pay for it."
But Roberts said he will continue to prioritize virtual education at Southwood even if the money is not available at the district level.
"It's too important to us and we're not turning our backs on this now," Roberts said. "We're seeing way to much success to stop offering these online classes."
Information from: The Times, http://www.shreveporttimes.com