Feature

Districts Delivering Online

Public schools offer virtual courses to meet the increasing demands of students by Ruth Sternberg

Colorado's tiny Branson Reorganized School District 82 was in the midst of an enrollment crisis in 2001. School attendance in the geographically isolated region, located 50 miles from its closest neighbors, had dwindled considerably. Teachers were expecting only 30 students in grades K-12.

J. Alan Aufderheide, the superintendent at the time, heard about the growing use of a concept that could draw more students — online courses. By then, several national companies had cropped up offering state-tailored programs that looked like a revolutionary and convenient way to deliver instruction. Universities had been using distance education technology for years to supplement the student base.

Aufderheide determined that by designing its own program and opening enrollment to students living in surrounding areas, Branson might be able to expand its tiny enrollment with some long-distance students. By so doing, the district eventually would receive state funding to pay for some of the costs of the online program.

Superintendent Troy Mayfield, who at the time was a Branson teacher, recalled that Aufderheide used approximately $20,000 from the federal Small Rural Schools Technology Grant program to acquire an Internet server and experimented with some core courses online. The superintendent persuaded the school board to pay for ads in newspapers and on radio stations in other Colorado cities. Soon the phone was ringing.

"We were knocked backwards by the response," said Mayfield. "The fax machine started burning up with applications coming in. We had 110 kids that first fall."

This past school year, Branson Online served 1,107 students in K-12. Most of them participate from locations outside the school district. Their reasons vary. Some take online classes to recover lost credits and others to pick up courses they couldn't fit into their regular school schedules. Some don't have access to advanced courses or have moved from the area and want to continue to attend school in Branson.

"It's been a lot more work than we ever anticipated," said Mayfield. "But as administrators, our job is to protect our school and hopefully when we do that, our students are getting a lot of good benefits."

Escalating Enrollments
The idea isn't new: Offer courses remotely, build in variety and the students will come. Several surveys conducted in recent years show that school districts nationwide are embracing this learn-at-home-or-anywhere idea.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education published a survey of courses taught in elementary/secondary schools. It found that more than one-third of the nation's responding public school districts were using distance technology to offer instruction and that approximately 500,000 students were taking an online course.

Some states have seen huge increases in the numbers of students now studying in cyberspace. In Colorado, the number of online students increased 20 times between 2000 and 2005. In Pennsylvania, 10,000 students were taking online courses in 2004-05. This past school year, more than 13,000 students in the state were enrolled in cyber charter schools alone, and the number is growing, according to the Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools.

According to the national survey, the No. 1 reason for offering online courses is versatility. Online programs can offer dozens of courses to high volumes of students, and they don't have to provide extra physical classroom space. They also address the need for a highly qualified teacher in specialized subjects in remote communities. If students can't find particular courses at their brick-and-mortar schools, chances are they can find such classes online.

"The No. 1 reason that high school kids are dropping out is because they don't feel like school is challenging them enough," says Susan Patrick, former technology coordinator for the U.S. Education Department and now CEO of North American Council for Online Learning. "Forty percent of our high schools don't offer a college-prep curriculum."

But superintendents say they also are attracted by the chance to recoup state funds. When they take in students from elsewhere, most programs get paid for serving them. This potentially negates district losses of state dollars to charter schools, where an increasing number of students are heading. Cyber charter schools in particular draw large numbers into their programs.

Administrators acknowledge that setting up a program isn't as simple as connecting to an Internet server and flipping a switch. Online programs carry startup costs. They require constant revenues for computer upgrades,

curriculum development and teacher training. State funding may or may not cover these expenses because states employ differing funding formulas.
Despite these challenges, school leaders say they want to stick with it because itÕs a trend they believe will continue to grow.

Future Investments
When students register with Branson Schools Online, they get a desktop computer to use at home, financial assistance with an Internet connection if they donÕt already have one and a basic printer. Setting all that up required a cash outlay at the start, mostly for computers, which comprise about 10 percent of the budget, said Mayfield.

"There is no hot lunch or transportation, but the inventory issues are bigger," he said. The district now buys some 300 to 400 computers each year. Students borrow them for the year.

Mayfield said the district also brought in extra teachers. Branson used its own teachers at first but found it was too demanding. "Everyone had specific jobs, but they also had their classrooms. So we had to make the decision to have a separate staff, not only instructional but administrative," he says.

The program now employs 58 full-time teachers and its own principal and two technology specialists. It also pays for a curriculum that mixes district-designed lesson plans with pre-packaged courses from providers such as Prentice Hall. Courses include English 7, world geography, world history, algebra, trigonometry, calculus, consumer math, art and technology applications.

The state gives Colorado school districts $5,687 per pupil enrolled in online schools, and students can enroll anywhere in the state they choose. The statewide budget is about $5.5 million.

This fall's rolls in Branson are expected to grow with Mayfield hoping for 1,200 online student registrants. "We feel like we're probably at the size that it's best for us to manage," he says. "We could get bigger very easily, but we don't want to. There's a tipping point."

Flexible Options
In Hamilton County, Tenn., educators turned to online courses as an alternative to traditional summer high school. It seemed students were reluctant to show up for the classes because they were embarrassed.

Charlene Becker, secondary education director, says the summer course wasn't adequate anyway. "It was 19 days per course, and you're not going to get what you would get in a whole nine weeks with a teacher every day. But we had a tech guru who was very good at engaging the kids, and we said let's develop our own courses to address the (state's) Gateway exams — English, biology and algebra."

The four-year-old Hamilton County Virtual School has since grown into a year-round pursuit. So far, the district has spent $500,000 on the program, which serves about 400 students during the school year and 1,000 in the summer, all county residents.

Courses are provided by several vendors including Compass Learning, Class.com and Virtual High School. Local teachers review the curriculum. Some of the courses can be pricey, says Becker — as much as $800 per course credit. It isn't a get-rich-quick scheme.

She says she tries to draw additional funding out of other Hamilton budget areas to help supplement the cost. For instance, some of a high school reform grant from the Carnegie Corp. pays for online courses at schools with limited staff, and some state funds designated for teacher evaluation help pay some teachers' salaries. "I try to see where can we fill a need," Becker says. "That's the way you have to do it. I average it out to try to come out even. And everybody wins."

She also charges $200 tuition for a half-credit course in high school and $200 for the middle school summer credit-recovery course. The state doesn't provide per-pupil funding for the program because it isn't a charter school.

The state has been impressed with Hamilton's efforts. The program now is part of a pilot for a statewide cyber program, along with seven other Tennessee districts. The state has committed $3.7 million and several program coordinators to expand the course offerings.

A Learning Experience
In Waukesha, Wis., Superintendent Dave Schmidt continues to hope the district's cyber-school, iQ Academies, will bring in enough revenue to help offset a serious budget deficit that stood at more than $600,000 last year. The program is expected to draw 1,000 students, most of them attending online full time. Each full-time student means $5,800 in state funding. Part-time students carry a lesser amount, based on their time spent taking the Internet courses.
But setting up the school hasnÕt been a quick process. Schmidt admits he had a lot to learn. "One mistake we made early on is we modeled it after a brick-and-mortar school," he says. It's nothing like a brick-and-mortar school." Class sizes were limited at first so as not to overwhelm the teacher pioneers. As a result, they tended to fill up, defeating one of the key purposes of offering courses online in the first place — to offer more for less than in traditional classrooms.

And Schimdt says he didnÕt think through the fairness of the district's agreement with the program's curricular partner, KC Distance Learning, which is affiliated with Oregon-based Knowledge Learning Corp. The company wanted more than half of the state revenues from the program.

"We didn't understand that the $5,800 we get per student isn't a lot when you start paying for computers," he says. "Then throw in a partner who's going to make money with it, and it's interesting."

Schmidt renegotiated a better deal this year, heading off school board discussion about dissolving the enterprise. Duties have been more clearly delineated: The school district is responsible for teacher and administrative staff costs while KC contributes curriculum, the technology platform and related costs, computers, administrative support, marketing and software costs.

Business Manger Robert Buccholtz projects revenues of nearly $6 million next school year. Expenses will be slightly behind that figure, but by 2009 Buccholtz predicts costs will shrink as student rolls grow, realizing an economy of scale that puts annual revenues at $12.8 million and expenses at $9.5 million.

"Virtual schooling is not going to go away," says Schmidt. "We're either going to lose kids or make money."

Some districts have decided working together is most cost-effective. In Pennsylvania, about 100 superintendents formed Blended.net. The main aim was to win back students who had left for charter schools, particularly those featuring online curricula, and to offer a wider variety of courses to students who couldn't get them where they lived.

Each participating district pays $10,000 annually for 200 slots each. Students can choose from among 68 courses in K-12 taught by a rotating cadre of full- and part-time teachers who work for and are paid by the member districts. Some 280 teachers were compensated for release time to develop the curriculum, and all teachers — cyber or not — are encouraged to use Blended.net to enhance their daily instruction, said director Hervey Hann.

The program has a budget of $1.5 million. Hann says the plan has proved economical because districts provide salaries. The expenses that fall on the administrative offices are for a staff of four, including Hann, for equipment, training and curriculum development.

Unequal Funding
Superintendents whose districts take on cyber programs are looking for ways to maximize their state revenues while expanding student enrollment online. But that is not entirely within their control. What a program earns depends on its state's system of reimbursement.

A study conducted by Denver-based Augenblick Pailich Associates and funded by Bell South documented these differing payment approaches. For instance, in Colorado, cyber schools receive about $5,600 per student — and that amount doesn't change with the size of the program. Brick-and-mortar schools, however, can receive more, especially if they have relatively few students.

But in Minnesota, all students are worth the same amount no matter what kind of school they attend. However, schools with additional online programs don't receive additional funding.

This can create dilemmas. Minneapolis Online must foot its own bill for 19 teachers and about 45 computers for students who don't own them. Most of its 550 students are local so the school district must use the money it already receives for its traditional programs to fund the virtual one. Only about 20 students from elsewhere in the state bring additional per-pupil finding with them, says coordinator Renee Jesness.

So far, the district has been fortunate. Federal technology funds, part of the Title II program, have paid about half of the program's expenses for the past three years with the district paying extra to add online electives, assist students with scheduling problems and provide at-risk students with credit recovery.

The federal grant was to expire this summer. Jesness says the program has cost $750,000 so far to operate. It is unclear what the district will do to replace the federal dollars. Jesness says the costs could fall to the individual district schools where students attend.

Dave Grosche, superintendent of the Edison 54JT School District in Yoder, Colo., was inspired by the neighboring Branson Online program. Also a rural district, 48 miles southeast of Colorado Springs, Edison had fluctuating enrollment (at one time as low as 22 students in K-12) so losing even a single student meant a significant loss. Because of its size, the district was getting a higher-than-average amount of state per-pupil funding, about $10,000 per child.

Grosche founded Edison Academy to provide online instruction. This year, 40 students, from kindergarten through 12th grade, attended full time. For each, the state pays Edison $5,600, the rate for a virtual school.

Grosche considers that reasonable, but his main challenge has been to secure the full $10,000 payment. To qualify, Grosche is encouraging students to take courses at brick-and-mortar schools in addition to their online courses, including at community colleges and vocational schools.

The Edison Academy tries to keep costs low by not paying for advertising. "It's all word-of-mouth," says the superintendent. But he has a plan for attracting and keeping more students: He lets a few in each year in between enrollment periods, even though the state won't reimburse him mid-year.

"If we treat them right, they are going to be here in October," Grosche says.

Multiple Uses
When Grosche started Edison Academy, he went after the group of students he thought might get the most out of the experience. "I've got some kids that dropped out of school around here. And I went out and got seven kids, most of them previously expelled," he says.

But things didn't go smoothly. The students didn't complete their work. Their motivation levels didn't change. "These kids were every bit as bad with the online program," he says.

Grosche nearly decided to quit the online approach but reconsidered. "You know, maybe I'm just doing this wrong," he says. So he refocused energies on the rest of the students, offering some existing course programs such as PLATO, a no-frills core program, and Colorado Online for students who wanted more advanced courses than he could offer.

He also linked his students with opportunities to earn college credit at places like the University of Colorado and Pike's Peak Community College.

Administrators across the country say that's why they started cyber programs — to offer education in multiple formats for students who want it. Among their clientele are students whose families have relocated to other countries temporarily, students who are ill and recovering at home and students who can't fit certain courses into their schedules.

"Our state has cut back revenue to schools, and we aren't able to give kids the flexibility in their schedules," says Kay Baker, superintendent of the Salem-Keizer, Ore., schools. The district operates the 7-year-old SK Online, one of the nation's oldest online programs, serving more than 900 students in grades 9-12 across the state.

Baker formed connections with other agencies. "Originally we were doing this completely on our own," she says. "But over the last five years we have connected with our community college here in town and our education service district to talk about what platform issues we can share that would be cost effective for all of us."

Students now can take college courses. Gifted middle school students can take high school courses without having to commute or sit in classrooms with much older students.

"We have 38,000 students. We know our comprehensive high school meets the needs for the majority of our kids, but it doesn't for every kid," Baker says.

"There's no single one best way to learn," says Pat Crawford, superintendent of Greencastle-Antrim, Pa., schools, part of the Blended.net consortium. Blended.net is establishing links with Allegheny Community College to give students dual high school and college credit.

"We have school districts running alternative-ed programs and credit recovery programs," he says. The system also provides support for families who home school.

Athletics Online
In Waukesha, one student who attends iQ Academy is a professional tennis player and another competes in motocross. Both are on the road frequently, which would seriously jeopardize regular high school attendance, says iQ Principal Kristine Diener. "We have a number of kids who are dancers. We also have kids who have physical or emotional illnesses. And we have one 9-year-old boy who is ready to be a high school freshman. But he looks like a 9-year-old. It just wouldn't have been a good situation for him to attend high school."

Minneapolis Online started as a way to offer students physical education. Doing so cleared up time slots for them for desired courses at their traditional schools and saved some students the embarrassment of competing in athletics with classmates. More than 1,000 students applied for that course alone this past year, says Jesness. They participate in sports or exercise on their own, tracking heart rates and other physiological data and filling out a journal. They also study health topics and take tests on their knowledge.

But Minneapolis Online offers much more than an alternative to phys-ed class, core academic courses and electives. "We knew with increasing budget cuts that we didn't have the ability to offer all the electives at each school," says Jesness. "We brought forensic science online. It's a very popular course. We offer German."

Hamilton, Tenn., wanted to reach at-risk students through its online program. "We had far too many who did not graduate," says Becker. "Our dropout rate was 34 percent, and when we started digging deeper we realized a lot don't graduate because they don't stay with their cohort. By the end of 10th grade, they give up. Our idea was how do you form a program that gives the kids more flexibility and credit recovery?"

Now the dropout rate is decreasing and more students are graduating, says Becker. About 350 more diplomas were expected to be awarded this summer.

She takes it as a sign the program must continue. "School systems are looking for ways to personalize education," she says. "You're failing the students if you're not finding a way to meet the way they learn."

Ruth Sternberg is a freelance education writer in Columbus, Ohio. She can be reached at ruthestern@insight.rr.com