Celebrate Our 25th Anniversary with Educator, Mary Mitchell
Beepers, sit-down dinners with student families, extended-range phone lines to reach throughout the house, matching t-shirts at the science fair so that science club members could recognize each other for the first time, and pay phones to make calls while visiting schools. Florida Virtual School (FLVS) has changed quite a lot since its humble beginning in 1997 when it had only 77 enrollments and five courses.
The Beginning of Something Great
As the 15th employee and first biology teacher hired in 1998, Mary Mitchell saw these changes firsthand. With only a $200,000 grant awarded to Orange and Alachua counties for this new online school, many educators might have been nervous or apprehensive about joining this new initiative that would become the first statewide internet-based public high school in the United States. But Mary was excited and displayed full confidence in what would evolve into FLVS.
As a previous brick-and-mortar educator, she sought out challenges – both professionally and personally, and created new courses and wrote grants for her school and students. And this exciting new option for education provided her with yet another way to challenge herself and continue to serve the students of Florida.
Mary experienced her first “aha” moment with FLVS when she witnessed the impact virtual school produced in a student’s life. One of her first students was born with an autoimmune deficiency and lived his life in a sterile plastic bubble. This was before the days of video meetings, so students would converse via phone on conference calls and write on online discussion boards.
Mary’s student could communicate with other students who had no idea about his medical challenges. He told her that he was able to interact with his peers and feel accepted for the first time in his life. This was when she knew the virtual school option would continue to thrive and its success would continue to support all types of students and families.
Growth and Opportunity
Since Mary has been with FLVS for 24 years, she was able to witness the exponential growth of virtual learning. In one year of FLVS, the number of students tripled. The excitement surrounding the opportunities and vital resources virtual learning provided caught the eye of school districts, state legislators, and other states.
She also assisted other school districts to build their online structure, such as rural school districts that did not have enough students to staff electives or Advanced Placement classes but could now offer those opportunities for their students due to FLVS.
She enjoyed traveling to Tallahassee, around Florida, and Washington D.C. to highlight these incredible learning moments for K-12 students that online learning provided. At the time, no other entities were providing this type of distance learning, which was only just beginning at the college level and consisted of courses on the TV or mailing out packages for students to complete. No other organizations were instructing students digitally like FLVS.
Communication is Key for a Winning Team
Another exciting memory from the early years of FLVS occurred when Mary formed the first science club, and they participated in the statewide Science Olympiad. The science club members prepared and created their airplanes, rockets, and robots through phone calls and emails, never having met face-to-face. But this was not the most amazing fact – it was that these students did not even recognize these barriers to their success, instead they found ways to effectively communicate and work together to become a winning team.
A Legacy of Excellence
Mary herself embodies this winning spirit and due to her dedication to the online education field, she was nominated as the FLVS Teacher of the Year in the 2004-05 school year. Always the innovator, she had to submit a video of herself teaching in the classroom. As this was before the days of video conferencing, she traveled to her local students’ homes to film herself giving in-person discussion-based assessments (DBAs). She also received the national Milken Educator Award in 1998, which was an incredibly exciting moment as neither Florida nor online learning had ever been a part of it. As part of the Milken network, Mary continues to support teacher retention and programs to promote interest in teaching as a career to younger students.
Advice for Students
Mary continues to serve students and families of FLVS and will retire two years from now after 35 years in the education field. And as one of the organization’s longest-serving educators, Mary offers this advice to students – online learning and training are the way of the future.
“Many people now work from home, professional training is completed online before you meet in person, and the global network requires video calls to get business done,” said Mary. “As future teammates and coworkers, you will need to understand how to be part of that online team, be productive, budget your time, and work together. What better way to learn these skills now, than by having an online experience early before you begin your career? Take a class with Florida Virtual School and experience how relevant, innovative, flexible, and supportive online learning can be!”
We cannot believe it has already been 25 years of FLVS and we cannot wait for the next 25! We will be celebrating all school year long so be sure to check back to The Virtual Voice blog and on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter for news and updates.