The Brighter Side of Education

Students with Disabilities Are Thriving in Virtual School with Founder Barb Southwick

January 26, 2023 Dr. Lisa R. Hassler Season 1 Episode 8
The Brighter Side of Education
Students with Disabilities Are Thriving in Virtual School with Founder Barb Southwick
The Brighter Side of Education +
Become a supporter of the show!
Starting at $3/month
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

In this episode, I focus on virtual school in special education as a variable with Barbara Southwick. She discusses how virtual school in special education is an untapped resource that opens up possibilities in students with disabilities. 

In 2021, I published a study comparing third grade reading proficiency levels in virtual schools and face-to-face schools for the state of Florida. Data showed that since 2015, students with disabilities that attended a virtual school outperformed students in a face-to-face schools by 13.9 percentage points.

I was so passionate about getting the information out to parents and educators to change the lens in which we view distance education, that I wrote the book, America's Embarrassing Reading Crisis: What We Learned from COVID to get the information out into the world.

Special Education teacher, Barbara Southwick heard the message, which confirmed what she was experiencing in her classroom. She made a decision to take action.

In the fall of 2022, she founded the nonprofit organization, Spectrum Education, Inc. a virtual learning community of dedicated parents and educators offering virtual education for children in grades 3-12 with unique abilities. What she saw in student growth is heartwarming and gives hope for families. Her work is innovative and groundbreaking for students needing instruction with a modified curriculum. 

Call to action: Support Distance Education as a viable option to better serve student's learning needs through flexibility and personalization.

To learn more, go to

Support the show

Please subscribe and share this podcast with a friend to spread the good!
If you find value to this podcast, consider becoming a supporter with a $3 subscription. Click on the link to join:

To help this podcast reach others, rate and review on Apple Podcasts! Go to Library, choose The Brighter Side of Education, and scroll down to Reviews. It's just that easy. Thank you!

Want to share a story? Email me at
Visit my website for resources:

The music in this podcast was written and performed by Brandon Picciolini of the Lonesome Family Band. Visit and follow him on Instagram.

My publications:
America's Embarrassing Reading Crisis: What we learned from COVID, A guide to help educational leaders, teachers, and parents change the game, is available on Amazon, Kindle, and Audible, and iTunes.
My Weekly Writing Journal: 15 Weeks of Writing for Primary Grades on Amazon.
World of Words: A Middle School Writing Notebook Using the Writing Process ...

Virtual School in Special Education with Founder Barb Southwick


·       Barb Southwick

·       Lisa Hassler

LH: Welcome to the brighter side of Ed podcast. I am your host. Dr. Lisa Richardson hasler here to enlist light and brighten the classrooms in America through focused conversation on important topics in education. In each episode, I discuss problems we as teachers and parents are facing and what people are doing in their communities to fix it. What are the variables, and how do we duplicate it to maximize student outcomes? In this episode, I focus on virtual school and special education as a variable. In 2021, I published a study comparing third grade reading proficiency levels in virtual schools and face to face schools for the state of Florida. I found that virtual students outperformed face to face students by eight percentage points in English Language Arts. What was even more impressive was the data I found on students with disabilities. Data showed that since 2015, students with disabilities that attended a virtual school outperform students in a face to face school by 13.9 percentage points. I just want to pause for a moment there. It's 13.9 percentage points. This is huge. I was so passionate about getting the information out to parents and educators to change the lens in which we view distance education that I wrote the book America's Embarrassing Reading Crisis what We Learned from COVID just to get the information out into the world. Special education teacher Barbara Southwick heard the message which confirmed what she was experiencing in her own classroom, and she made the decision to take action. In the fall of 2022, she founded a nonprofit organization, Spectrum Education, Inc. A virtual learning community of dedicated parents and educators offering virtual education for children in grades three through twelve with unique abilities. Today I'm extremely excited to welcome Barbara Southwick to the show to discuss how virtual school and special education opens up possibilities in students with disabilities. Welcome to the show, Barb.

BS: Thank you for having me, Lisa. I'm so excited. I feel like it's a blessing that we found each other. I do, too gotten to know each other, because when I heard you on my local PBS station, I was like, this lady gets it.

LH: And I'm so excited about what you've done in education and your journey, and I can't wait to just share that experience with the world. So I'm so happy you're here today. Can you tell us about yourself and what brought you into teaching?

BS: Well, I've always been part of a disability community. My daughter was born with a genetic disorder in 1998, and when I lived in Southwest Florida, I started looking for any resources for her and myself. And there really was back then nothing that existed. So any little bit I could find, I started becoming involved. And so I just got involved in the disability community. And as my children grew and got a little bit older, I thought a natural transition would go into the classroom, and I thought to go into Ese education. So that's what I did. I went back to school, I got my certificate, and I began teaching. So in my eleven years, I have been people hear what I do and say, you're a jack of all trades. I started an Ese inclusion for K through five, and then I went to kindergarten. Then I went to first grade, both Ese and gifted. And then when COVID started, I went to second grade gifted, and then I was asked to teach a modified curriculum class K E through twelve. So it's been quite ever an experience this far.

LH: How did COVID change the way you instructed students with disabilities, and what was.

BS: Your experience when COVID hit? I had already been using the computer in the classroom a lot, so I was in first grade, and it was actually something I really enjoyed with the kids. I just liked being able to see the different modalities we were able to use to teach and that the children were able to use to show us what they learned. It was really exciting. And just to see what first graders can show you on a computer is amazing. And then when 2020 rolled around and we all went online, district I was working in decided to open an online school. So I went there. I was part of the inaugural staff. It was second grade I taught, and it was a huge learning curve, but it was so exciting, and everybody I worked with was so excited that we were doing something incredibly amazing. So needless to say, I started to see a difference in students. We all did. I mean, no one knew at that point. Nobody I was working with. We had students with ADHD anxiety, different students with speech disorders, who had never talked or never interacted with their peers in the classroom, and they started to change and show a different side to themselves. And the biggest thing we noticed is students that had adverse behavior and were being taken out of classrooms for this behavior were actually starting to learn. So it was very exciting. At the end of that year, one of my students who was this quiet little girl, said, I know this was what she wrote in her online message to everybody. She says, I know you guys have had a rough year, and I just want you to know that homeschooling and this year has been the best year of my life. It's the first time I started in school to actually have friends. So that just hit me. It just showed that these kids with this great anxiety and differences in their life could make connections that they had never made before. And people just kept talking about the inequality of students with the online, and I understand the money issue of that, but I actually found the opposite because we're such a huge county where I was working in. I had kids in my classroom who would have never met in any other way probably. And they became a community and it was a beautiful thing to see how everybody came together. In 2021, I was asked to teach an online modified curriculum, class K through twelve. Nowhere had we seen this done before. We use in Florida, we use the access points and no one was quite sure how this was going to work. So we just moved forward. It was a cry from the parents for equality. If children in general education can be online, why can't children with special needs be online, right? I was told it was going to be six students and it quickly grew to 15. So we went forward and everything I learned the year before became valuable. All those online, allowing students, the different modalities, allowing students who were so shy or not used to talking, the ability to talk or chat in different ways, allowing students to do things in their own time. I started to see that I had a great deal of kids who had some aversive behavior that these kids were actually learning now. And it was amazing to see that they could sit in front of a computer and everybody's like, they're not going to do that. But one of my friends said to me, she's like, you know what, Barb? You are their own personalized best YouTube thing I've ever seen. Yeah. I think the online model took away a lot of the factors that were in the classroom. Those sensory factors, the anxiety, those behavior issues, those social issues. And it also allowed us to use the technology to engage those kids. And we began to just see these kids do things we had never seen them do before. So it was working. We said, this is amazing.

LH: I love the story of the girl who said this was the best year of her life. It's so touching because what a heartfelt level to know that that was making such an impact on her life and that she could be able to open up and to say something about the way it was changing her and impacting her and that's so significant, you know what I mean? It really is. For a child to say this way of learning is changing my life and this was really a great experience for me. Yay, big win. So now here you are, you're in the classroom and you've got a secure job with the county and then you leave it. What led you to leave that position and start founding non for profit learning community that specializes in tutoring students with special needs? It's a big jump.

BS: Yes, it was a huge jump. So the district decided to close the class and families were given the option to go back in person or attend Florida virtual school. Florida virtual school and other online schools don't really offer a modified curriculum. So many of the parents were very upset to the point of crying and asking me to please tutor their child because they had seen such a difference in the online. It didn't just affect their child, it affect their lives, the whole family. Like, it made more of a balanced life for them. So I spent a good part of June trying to figure out how I could help these families. And I think that's when you and I got in touch, I'm like, everybody understands me. How can we help these people? So we began talking about me too during them in my after hour school, we opened a nonprofit. It was myself and two other parents. And slowly I just began to realize this is too big, you know, to do part time. And I needed about six parents to make so I could eat, you know, and survive. And so we moved forward, but there were parents who just didn't feel secure because I hadn't made the leap. They're like, how do we know? That's a huge leap for me to take.

LH: Yeah.

BS: So I just took the leap and I went forward in faith and I said the families who joined me, it was amazing. It was not easy. It has just been recently that we've been able to even make ends meet. But we really are a family and we stood by each other. And at this point we currently have we just got two new students, so we have ten students. So I would have never thought we would be where we are. We're direct provider to the family education scholarship and step up for families and we accept direct pay. But most of our families are on the scholarship and most grassroots small schools in Florida, that's how they operate. And recently we received a grant from the Vella Education Foundation. It's a nonprofit which invests money in creating innovative solutions for educating students. So that has congratulations. Two days before Christmas, and I was like, I can eat now. Thank you. We've come so far in this little bit of time. I never would have thought we would be here. We have a group. It's me. We're actually going to hire another teacher. Things are changing so fast, even since the last time I talked to you, Lisa.

LH: Wow.

BS: We're going to hire another teacher. So we'll have two part time teachers. We have an assistant, myself, a language therapist. We have an arts and crafts teacher, yoga, meditation, and then we offer social skills, life skills, book clubs and all kinds of get togethers because we find that's all included with everything. And we find that is actually where the community is, what makes or breaks what we are doing, because the kids like to get together online and have different ways to interact.

LH: I just can't believe how fast you're growing. All since August when there was the question of will I have six students to be able to eat today? You know what I mean? You've almost doubled your numbers. You're doubling your staff. You're having all of these support services and I'm just so excited. You know, it's a good thing when it's taking off like this and parents are passing that information to say you need to be a part of this because what you're doing matters. So what you do makes spectrum education different than other virtual schools like FLVS.

BS: Can you tell us about a learning community? Families actually home school their students and this was just a way to get things off the ground as fast as we could. So we facilitate learning for families who home school students with unique ability and it's a collaboration between the families and the educators. Families are a really important part of what we do. We don't see ourselves as talking at them. We are collaborating and we have constant communication and feedback and that is a big deal to our success. So a lot of the people we found want to home school their students, but they don't know how to do it. They don't have the resources, they don't have the background to know what to do. So we provide the lessons. We have live lessons daily with a certified teacher and then we have online lessons that are available 24 hours a day and they're rigorous. We expect a lot of our students, but they're given multiple ways to demonstrate what they know. So we see a lot of kids will, you know, do videos, a lot of kids will draw, a lot of kids will write sentences. So we give everybody a way to do it in their own style. And many students feel more comfortable that way, I think, and they perform better. And the schedule includes the live lessons, like I said, and they are dedicated learning coach that is with them. So that's one thing we require. I learned that when we went to school in the county I worked with online and we required parents to be there, especially with the little ones, is teachers aren't used to being watched by parents constantly.

LH: No, they're not.

BS: And parents aren't used to seeing what their child does in reality or what they can do. But it is unique. So the parents sit with them or if they're not with them all the time, we talk all the time and we collaborate and we're kind of teaching the parents right alongside the kids to teach them how to teach their child or the misconceptions they are seeing or the better way of doing it. But at the same time they're telling us about their kid and what is going on because we can't physically interact with them because everything is online. Like I said before, with all those virtual meetings we have, and the kids love that. We do a lunch bunch on Tuesday.

LH: Nice.

BS: And the kids love to eat and it's pretty quiet, but it's their favorite thing. I mean, it's their favorite thing to sit there and eat online. And every morning we have a virtual meeting where people. There's lots of ways to chat and talk and we have bring in brags and drawing challenges. We do virtual field trips. We're very lucky a lot of that still exists out there that did scientists visiting scientists and artists come and when we do it, we do it across the school so they were not split up into grade levels. Our second and third graders are 10th graders and they're all together when we do these kinds of things.

LH: And all those social interactions are building such a strong foundation for a community feel. And there's so much research that talks about how important it is with an online school to be able to have those pockets of time where they're allowed to just talk without it being a structured moment, you know what I mean? Still where there is a supervision so that there's nothing inappropriate happening, but at the same point where it's unstructured. So something like your lunch bunch where they're able to just eat. It's building a community in a way that if you structured something during that downtime, it wouldn't have the same effect. That's really wonderful to see that those things that you're implementing, they're really enjoying. Are you going to do it year round?

BS: I assume we'll probably have a summer program. Yeah, not probably full time, but it's really parent led. We have extremes. There are parents who want to do the not the least minimum, but don't want to utilize everything we offer, which is right. And then there's parents who want every little piece and everything and then are probably going to want something over the summer.

LH: Something over the summer, yeah. So that's great that you offer that or that's a possibility to just offer that consistency to families and to students. And then you could see where there would be our usual, like the summer slide slider slump.

BS: Yes.

LH: So that maybe then that won't happen. And so it'll just keep them consistently learning, which is great.

BS: And I just think they like it. We found during the hurricane, I had one student on there, I think two days after. Luckily I had some internet, but they want to see everybody. They want to feel like in touch. Especially a lot of our students want that structure and it helps them feel more secure.

LH: Absolutely. And then you do things with portfolios, right? End of the year portfolio. So you're able to keep their information and then present that either to the county or just to have to show and growth. Right.

BS: We're using portfolios and we'll probably do some type of testing, but right now we're building portfolios as we talk.

LH: And there's so many states that I've heard that are going to this type of record keeping where portfolios are a great way to show growth and mastery of skills, to be able to have that collection of data, you know what I mean? So you're utilizing a different modality in being able to assess.

BS: And it's really we do it virtual, as you would imagine. So we have a lot of our students, like I say, well, they're verbal, so like, we're even drafting their videos into their portfolios. That's to see they're reading their papers, their questions. Yeah.

LH: What have you found? Are the benefits, the student benefits for learning online?

BS: The flexibility is one of the biggest benefit online. The technology to help with the barriers. It's much easier for a lot of these students to tape themselves and talk than to talk in front of a classroom. So, I mean, you do hear a lot more of what is actually going on or their understanding of things, and they're more focused. A lot of our students have some type of attention issues, but they're more focused. Even though you would think they aren't. They are. The lessons are easily differentiated online students are able to use all those different modalities, fewer distractions. I mean, you don't have a classroom around you. Different things coming in and out, having a speech language pathologist, OT, somebody having a little bit of a meltdown. There's more opportunity for one on one, and it's very strong being with a certified teacher one on one, like you and I are talking for 30 minutes. That's a long time to have some direct instruction. Students, like I said, they feel more comfortable being behind the camera and they perform better. And parents say this, I would have never thought this, it eliminates that non instruction time. Like it eliminates the traveling in the hallway, getting on a bus, all the time you spend between classes or different kinds of pet rallies and that stuff. I know those are valuable to some families and students, but others who it isn't something as valuable, right? It takes away from that. So the instruction is concentrated, I guess is what I'm trying to say. And it allows them to participate in a group setting because one of the options parents were given when their students were told the class was shutting down was hospital homebound, which is a teacher coming to your house one on one. But then there's no interaction with other kids and decreased frustration, and that's the decreased behavior. It's a different mindset because we're not really talking about a child, we're talking about a family, because we're missing this family and they love the flexible schedule. I don't know if it was you I was talking to, but my mother says, why doesn't any of your classes start before ten? I'm like, who wants to go do math at six in the morning?

LH: Right? Not me.

BS: Nobody's good. I'm not good. So one of our other teachers has a little baby and she offered a class at 08:00 A.m., and there were no takers. I can't imagine why. Yeah, but we do offer classes later, too, in the day. It eliminates that long commute to school, the reduced illnesses, the parental participation is huge. I mean, the parents love that and the collaboration is big and just not being frustrated. They still get frustrated, but not as much as a lot of kids would be being picked up because they got a little too frustrated.

LH: So those are things I hadn't really considered, especially the reduced illnesses. I hadn't thought about that. They're getting sick less, they're being exposed to.

BS: That came from our parents when we asked like, how does this benefit you? And it's true, that's why it benefit. Or just the time on a bus. Yeah, like their kids on the bus.

LH: For 2 hours a day, you know what I mean? An hour there, an hour back. Some of these commutes are so long and so yeah, just being able to sleep in a little bit longer and not have to be at a bus stop at six in the morning. I was reading online. One of your parent testimonials said the positive impact has been endless. She has been able to focus more during her instructions due to the lack of distractions. She enjoys the one on one attention. Reading and writing have become fun and her verbal communication comes more easily. She is less introverted and gets excited to engage in activities that used to be a struggle. Virtual learning has drastically improved her development. Unlike any other setting, virtual education is the best method of learning for her. I thought it was fantastic. Yeah, congratulations.

BS: I mean, it isn't for everybody, I will say that. But the kids it's for, it just makes a huge difference.

LH: So you talked about how important it was, that parent collaboration and that support system that you're creating between you and the parents to help support the child with special needs. And so what are some key strategies that you would recommend for parents who are homeschooling their child with disabilities?

BS: The first thing I always tell parents is to be patient. And I say this in my classroom too. I don't mean patient, be patient with your give your child time to process. I was given this advice once about my daughter actually count to 30. Like 30 seconds is a long time, but a lot of students need 30 seconds. I've been with students that need more than 60 seconds to answer it's in there and they just can't find it in their filing system. And along with that is you have to sometimes we see that parents, they want their kids to be right. Like there's not always one right way to get to an answer. Part of that is just training or seeing it from the outside. A student may say something that is relevant to a story when you ask a question, but it's not the right answer. But maybe that's their connection to getting to the right answer. So the first thing may not be you kind of have to think outside the box is what I'm saying. We have to teach our parents that they may say the character's name isn't what I asked, but that's them getting to what the answer is somewhere down there, right?

LH: Seeing those connections and the path to where they're going and then being able to have a conversation to help them get to that.

BS: Exactly. Have a conversation. Yeah, you're right, he loves a character. But what's this? And they eventually get there.

LH: Excellent advice. Thank you. So here is the call to action support distance education as a viable option to better serve students'learning needs with flexibility and personalization. Thank you, Barb, for joining me today. To talk about how schools can use distance education to better serve students with special needs. To learn more, go to That's If you have a story about what's working in your schools that you'd like to share, you can email me at Dr. Lisa or visit my website at www dot dr. and send me a message. If you like this podcast, subscribe and tell a friend. The more people that know, the bigger impact it will have, and I would greatly appreciate it. It's the mission of this podcast to shine light on the good in education so that it spreads affecting positive change. So let's keep working together to find solutions that focus on our children's success.

Barb's Background
COVID impact on instructional methods
leap of faith to start Spectrum Education, Inc
What makes Spectrum Education different
student and family benefits
Strategies for parents