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More kids are 'telecommuting' to high school, and even grade school

Mykenzey and Skylar Watchorn, both sophomores, will be attending Insight School of Minnesota, an online high school, starting this fall. Both attended Frazee-Vergas high School last year. (Brian Basham/DL Newspapers)

At a mid-August Frazee-Vergas School Board meeting, Superintendent Deron Stender asserted that the district's biggest threat is no longer open enrollment -- it's online education.

Stender said the number of students leaving Frazee's school district for online learning has been growing every year. Now at about a dozen, those students take state funding dollars along with them.

Since each student equates to roughly $8,000 in state and local tax dollars for the district, the loss of even 10 students can pinch the budget big time.

Students enroll online for different reasons, even within the same family.

Take Skyler and Mykenzey Watchorn of rural Frazee. Both are high school sophomores, and both will be attending the Insight School of Minnesota starting this fall.

The two attended Frazee High School their freshman year, but have different reasons for choosing to start classes online.

For Skyler, it was a matter of convenience. He said he has problems bringing assignments home, completing them and bringing them back to school. School online will let him work at home at his own pace.

Mykenzey, on the other hand, said Insight School of Minnesota offered more and better classes than he was offered in Frazee last year. He has signed up for honors level classes online.

"I like the idea of higher, more challenging courses," he said. "If it gets too hard, there's always a teacher an instant message away."

Their mother, Annette Watchorn, said the decision whether to attend Insight was left to her sons. Skyler had failed a grade, and when the brochure from Insight came in the mail, she thought this would be good for him.

"There's no (being) tardy," Skyler said. "I can work on (my schoolwork) whenever I want. I can get up at three in the morning and work."

The trend towards online schooling is worrisome to administrators.

"I think the first one (that left) was three or four years ago, and every year, we've had a small group enrolling (in other online programs)," Stender said. "This year doubled from last year in terms of kids (leaving for online.)"

The solution, Stender said, is creating the district's own online education option for local students, and possibly to even bring in kids from other districts.

To stay competitive, he said he wants to fast-track those goals -- a program will "definitely" be in place by fall 2010, and possibly partway through this school year.

The first step, a task force charged with working out the nuts and bolts of such a program will be put together soon, he said. The group will likely consist of a few community members, board members, teachers from each core education area, special education teachers, and folks from the district's technology department.

There are many ways to go about it, however, and each presents it's own pros and cons.

Either way, Stender said, "it's an inevitable process that's going to happen with education."

"Our goal is to retain our kids, but we're in a generation where learning is not so traditional anymore," he said. "We know we need to be aggressive in technology, and try to still provide quality education, but provide it in a manner that is starting to grow, and that's online."

'We want to make sure we work with the school districts'

One option for creating an online learning presence would be to partner with a network -- something like the Lakes Country Service Cooperative based in Fergus Falls.

It's part of the larger Minnesota Service Cooperatives, which has eight branches around the state. Six of those are equipped to partner with school districts for online opportunities, said LCSC's Education Services Manager Josh Nelson.

In this region, he said, the number of school districts participating has doubled from three to six in the last year, with plenty of interest from other superintendents.

Statewide enrollment with MSC has grown considerably in only the last few years, from 27 students enrolled full-time during the 2006-2007 school year, to 180 during the 2007-2008 school year, to 420 students last year, Nelson said.

Blended enrollment, meaning the student has some classes in a traditional classroom and some online, is seeing more than 1,000 participants.

To be a part of the network, Nelson said school districts pay $1,950 into the consortium, and $375 per class.

The co-op will then train teachers in the district in the needed technology, and use a combination of their own teachers and teachers at the school district to guide the classes.

Nelson said the co-op's goal is to be "completely supplementary" to the traditional school setting.

"By no means do we want to compete with teaching jobs," Nelson said. "One of the features we offer versus other (programs) is that we try to use our regional teachers ... I can envision at some point that a full-time teacher would teach five face-to-face classes and one online class. By all stretches, we want to make sure we work with the school districts."

In this scenario, the school district would retain all of it's state funding.

Detroit Lakes School District paid into the co-p and started offering a few classes here and there to high school students last year, but Superintendent Doug Froke said he hasn't really gotten any word on how successful it's been.

'We could be the premier online school'

While buying into the LCSC network would have its benefits, however, Stender said he envisions something different -- more of a standalone model, similar to what the Houston, Minn. school district has done.

Houston Superintendent Kim Ross said they started their Minnesota Virtual Academy in 2002 for just kindergarten through second grade, and had 75 students the first year. In 2003, they started the Minnesota Center for Online Learning, or MCoOL, for the high school set.

Now, both programs are available for all grades K-12, but operate on different sites, with different curriculums and different teachers, but they bring in plenty of students from around the state -- more than the town of Houston itself.

With a city population of a little more than 1,000 people, Ross said they teach about 1,500 students of all ages online from around the state.

When students from other districts opt to use MNVA or MCoOL, the Houston district also garners most of the funding from the state -- but not as much as the Frazee-Vergas district would get for a Frazee student, since that also comes with local referendum dollars.

"It's basic state aid," Ross said.

The funds from the online students are used first and foremost as operational dollars for the online programs, Ross said, and then anything left over is used to better the district as a whole.

Keep in mind, they still operate a traditional brick-and-mortar school, which enrolls fewer than 500 students in K-12.

As for Houston's teachers, Ross said most are either all online or all face-to-face, but a few work part time in each.

"We're trying to do more of that, but when we started, we were brand new and we started hiring teachers for the purpose of teaching online," he said. "As we've grown, they've created an interest to be online. It really depends on the teacher, what does the teacher want to do."

Other standalone schools, like BlueSky Online Charter School, which was Minnesota's first online charter school, or Insight Schools, based in Portland, Ore., are completely virtual, that is, they're technically without a central "school," other than administrative offices.

In Frazee, Stender said an ideal situation might be a partnership with the Detroit Lakes School District to create a joint online organization.

"Developing with our resources put together, I think we could be very dynamic, with very solid programming and very good support," Stender said of a potential partnership.

Although an agreement on revenues and staffing would have to be reached, Stender said they already share some services, and those arrangements work well.

"I don't want to speak for DL, but I think we have a good relationship, and I'd actually rather see it go that way, working together," he said. "We could be the premier online school in north central western Minnesota."

Froke said he and Stender had talked about collaborating, but that there are some "barriers to make it happen."

"It doesn't mean that we can't, it just means that when we work together, there are issues for both sides," Froke said. "We'll continue those discussions."

Froke said he'd like to start small to see student response first.

"Your best online program is one where it evolves out of your own district and is tempered with both classroom and online, that's how it best starts. Start small and just see what the response is of the student population, to use our existing staff to start some classes and see what kind of interest it," Froke said. "It's really in the infancy stages."

Even though Stender wants to "fast-track" the programs, Froke said it could take time.

'Online learning is not for everybody'

So what kind of student is ideal for online learning?

"First of all, online learning is not for everybody. It is not," Ross said. "It's part of the option spectrum."

At LCSC, Nelson said some students will use their program for credit recovery -- if a student fails a class and needs to retake it, but the class no longer fits in their schedule -- as electives, if a small school has had to make cuts in that area, or if a school only has one science teacher and needs to alternate the years they take chemistry or biology, the students can take the class on the off-years.

It can also be an alternative learning method if a student "just hasn't been learning well by sitting in a classroom," Nelson said.

Jamaica and Kelly Schlauderaff's son Thad will be starting first grade through Houston's MNVA after completing kindergarten through the program.

Jamaica said the online program turned out to be the best of both worlds.

"When the kids were younger, we'd toyed with the idea of doing home-schooling, but this was a way for me to not have to do the curriculum, because that was my hang up," she said. "This way, he doesn't have to spend eight hours a day in a classroom for two or three hours of learning."

Jamaica Schlauderaff said she and her husband's initial plan was to have Thad use the online programs until about third or fourth grade, "but now I'm sure we'll do it until at least junior high."

"He's already at a second grade math level and halfway through the first grade language stuff, so to put him in a traditional school, they wouldn't be able to cater to someone that's at certain points in all those things," she explained. "It's way easier to get ahead because everything is on a one-on-one basis."

The Schlauderaff's other son, Cael, doesn't turn 5 until October, but since they already have all the kindergarten material, they'll have him start learning anyway.

"He's ready for school, and says he's ready to learn, so we'll let him," Jamaica Schlauderaff said. "And then he can just test out of kindergarten once he's old enough."

MNVA's teachers are required to have a one-on-one conference with the students at least once a month, and that includes time with parents, Schlauderaff said, and if they have additional questions, she's never had to wait more than a couple hours for an answer to a question via e-mail or phone.

The teachers also set up group activities to get the students together once a month.

For example, Schlauderaff said the kids all got together at the St. Cloud library during the Christmas season for movies, pizza and games.

The Wadena-based teacher that Thad will work with for first grade took her class to a play at the Detroit Lakes Community and Cultural Center last year.

That helps alleviate the stereotype that home-schooled kids, or kids taking online classes, are under-socialized.

That, and a study that Schlauderaff read that said kids that take online classes are actually better socialized than those in a traditional school setting.

"Because students are having more one-on-one interaction with adults, more so than in traditional schools, they're found at or above all the areas that they test at," she explained. "Plus, they're still in some of the after-school curricular stuff like 4-H or sports."

The social piece has been a concern often brought up, especially for high school students, said Nelson at the Lakes Country Service Cooperative.

"I think the critics out there have gone down that road, but we're starting to see, as it evolves, the kids are setting up social networks on Facebook, for example, and they get the social aspect there just as much as anywhere else. It's moving in a similar direction with discussion forums and chat spaces, the students are sharing resources and upload videos," Nelson explained. "If we think of online learning as just reading and taking tests, it isn't very valuable, but as far as social networks, we're bringing education to more students where they're socializing already.'

But the biggest benefit, she said, is that Thad gets to work at his own pace, which is how he got so far ahead in math.

"If they're enjoying it, I'll just keep him going while he's enjoying it," she said. "You don't have to wait for the other kids in your class to move on -- you just go until you get it and go to the next thing."

And while Stender said "the race is on" for online education, Ross in Houston also said online education will never replace traditional schools.

"I think, in this day and age, I don't think anything will ever be one way," Ross said.

"Online is going to part of the mix, though, accessing info 24/7 and tailoring and adjusting for individuals. Online is the only mechanism for doing that."

As for Stender, it sounds like a bandwagon he's been waiting to jump on for a while.

"Honestly, I brought this up four years ago, and it's been a goal of mine every year and it's just been slow to develop because we've had other things to deal with in Frazee. Now we can focus on that goal," he said. "I was a techie, so it frustrates me to see these schools popping up when it was an idea of mine way back."