Julie Young’s guiding vision for the Florida Virtual School (FLVS) began in 1996 as she wrote the word “student” at the center of a piece of paper and then asked a series of questions of the team gathered around her. What could school look like if the student was at the center? If they didn’t have to follow the rules that already existed, what would they be?
With those questions driving the school’s design, FLVS grew into one of the most potent examples of the power of online learning to transform our monolithic education system into a student-centered one in which each student could receive a personalized education. Julie’s leadership had a lot to do with that, as she built a talented team that remained focused on each individual student—not a batch of them—at all times.
Earlier this month we learned that after 17 years at the helm of FLVS, Julie will step down in June. The news marks a pivotal transition not only for FLVS, but also in the history of the online, personalized, and student-centered learning movements.
Julie excelled as a leader of FLVS and, more generally, as one of the prime spokespeople for the power of digital learning to transform education into a more personalized, and ultimately successful, experience for students.
Growth and scale
Julie led FLVS through the ebbs and flows—and some turbulent waves—of the political cycles in Florida and kept the school growing at each turn. FLVS’s growth shows that if organizations commit to creating a sustainable business model, it’s not only for-profits that can harness online learning to scale.
From a small $200,000 Break the Mold grant, FLVS created a set of online offerings that served 77 students in 5 courses in 1997-98. By 2002-03, enrollments reached 11,500.
As I, along with Katherine Mackey, wrote in a case study profiling FLVS, a perfect storm in 2002 gave FLVS the opportunity to adopt a self-sustaining funding model that was not reliant on year-to-year appropriations but instead would allow fractional funding to follow students down to the online course level. In some ways this represented the beginning of course choice. Despite the worry that enrollments would decrease once FLVS began receiving per-pupil funding because it would put the school in competition with some district funds, the opposite happened. Student demand had been pent up for FLVS courses. Unconstrained by a fixed line item, enrollments more than doubled the following year, as they jumped from 14,000 in the 2003–04 school year to 31,000 in 2004–05. In 2011-12, FLVS served 148,000 students in 303,329 enrollments. Today the school serves students in 67 Florida districts, 49 states, and 57 countries.
Amidst this growth, Julie kept FLVS innovating. As Young said, “I envisioned an organization, we’d call school, with the customer service of Nordstrom and the student/parent focus of a private elementary school.” She was never afraid to experiment, fail fast, learn, and innovate again to better serve students. Although many in the blended-learning world sometimes discount fully online course providers, by doing so they miss where much of the innovation in education has occurred in the past decade. FLVS has helped districts create a variety of blended-learning models; it was recently awarded one of the Next Generation Learning Challenges planning grants for breakthrough school models. Florida Virtual School also created the first-ever full online video-game based course called Conspiracy Code—initially an American History course—for which it did rigorous research to learn how it improved student outcomes and for which students and teachers it worked best. FLVS under Julie was never afraid to partner with outside companies that brought different skills and approaches than FLVS’s core team, which kept the school nimble.
Julie also led FLVS to be an innovator with its performance-based funding model that aligns its interests with those of students. Today the school only receives funding when a student successfully completes a course and, where applicable, passes the state’s end of course exam. The school utilizes a competency-based learning model that treats time as a variable and learning as a constant for each student. It has pushed the bounds of how students learn in formal schooling, as indicated by its famous motto “Any time, any place, any path, any pace.” In essence, the school rewrote the rules of schooling.
Julie’s unwavering commitment to put students at the center has captured imaginations. It prompted Harvard professor and Education Next’s editor in chief Paul Peterson to profile Julie alongside Horace Mann in his book Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning. Upon the announcement of her retirement, Gov. Jeb Bush offered his congratulations over Twitter, as he said, “You brought education into the 21st Century @FLVS. It was an honor working with you.”
For any of us who have worked with Julie, it was an honor. She will be missed at the helm of FLVS, but let’s hope the school retains its innovative edge. I also suspect Julie Young will continue to play a leadership role in transforming schooling to put students at the center of their learning. There’s still too much work to be done for her to do otherwise.
This first appeared on Forbes.com