Two Minnesota school districts are launching unique online learning programs this week. Hopkins and Chisago Lakes have broken new ground by creating cyber charter schools within their districts to deliver instruction to some students over the Internet instead of traditional classrooms.
Hopkins High School junior Andreas Gaston already spends a lot of his free time using the computer in his bedroom. He'll spend even more time at his keyboard in the coming weeks. Gaston is taking three online courses in addition to his normal classroom schedule.
"Online I'm taking astronomy, health, physiology and anatomy, Gaston said. "And at the school I'm taking chemistry, world studies, just most of the basic classes a junior would take."
Gaston says he enrolled part-time in the new Hopkins Online Academy as a way to quickly accumulate more credits during his junior year. As a senior, he wants more time available to pursue college courses through the Post Secondary Enrollment Options program.
"I was running out of room on my schedule for classes, Gaston said. "And so, for instance health is a required class, and I didn't have a place to put it. And since I have to take it, being able to do it online is really a great option."
The Hopkins school district began experimenting with online learning two years ago. District teachers have now developed 18 online courses, including one of the few high school Latin classes available in the state. Students complete most of their work on their own time, but participation in live chatroom discussions is required. Tests are taken face-to-face at the school.
Bob Muller, the district's director of teaching and learning, says the goal of the Hopkins Online Academy is to help meet the changing needs of students, from remediation to enrichment.
"The online opportunities provide experiences for students that are needing to catchup on course requirements, on graduation requirements, or students who would like to get ahead," Muller said. "Those are the two primary targets."
About 60 students, primarily from Hopkins High School, are enrolled this fall in Online Academy courses. But Muller says the district is marketing the charter school to students statewide. He says students who haven't been successful in traditional classrooms might not have many learning options in their home school district.
Muller says gaining the charter school designation has helped protect the innovative program at a time of tight finances.
"It is our belief that if the budget reductions continue in the Hopkins school district that the online program that we had developed with seed money provided from the school district would probably have been in jeopardy at some point in time," Muller said. "So, the charter school funding and the charter school environment in a sense insulates the program from the finances of the Hopkins school district."
The Chisago Lakes school district has also used the state's charter school law to advance its online learning options. The Trio Wolf Creek Distance Learning Center actually began in 1995 as a state pilot project, serving three school districts. Superintendent Tom Dickhudt says the new charter school will serve about 75 students in sixth through 12th grade. He says online courses aren't for everyone, but they do help students who prefer independent study or who cannot physically attend school.
"I think we're feeling that this is not necessarily the way all education is going, but it certainly does meet a group of students out there and probably meets there needs better than our regular day program would," Dickhudt said.
Minnesota does not yet have a uniform policy for online learning, but school districts must get state approval for the online courses offered. State lawmakers have endorsed the concept and have provided some money for experimentation. State Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, sponsored legislation creating one-time grants of $100,000. He says the online learning offers options for students and efficiencies for schools.
"There is some potential for enabling a teacher to serve a greater number of students effectively, and get the benefits of what people have looked for from a small class size, that sort of individual interaction with a teacher, but by doing it in a new way," Kelley said.
Kelley says he expects the 2003 Legislature to craft a more comprehensive policy and funding plan for online learning in public schools throughout the state.More from MPR