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Online schools steadily catch on

A 2003 lawsuit thrust online schools onto Minnesotans' radar. The state's largest teacher's union, Education Minnesota, sued the Department of Education over the Minnesota Virtual Academy, charging that the school relied on parents rather than ce...

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A 2003 lawsuit thrust online schools onto Minnesotans' radar.

The state's largest teacher's union, Education Minnesota, sued the Department of Education over the Minnesota Virtual Academy, charging that the school relied on parents rather than certified teachers to handle daily instruction.

The suit was dismissed the following year, but doubts about cyberschools lingered. Critics questioned the wisdom of dispensing with face-to-face teacher interaction and faulted online schools with luring students away from traditional public schools already contending with declining enrollment.

Since then, virtual classroom attendance in the state has shot up, and new online schools have cropped up, including a Washington state-based high school set to launch next fall that pitches its program to area parents tonight. Amid the growth, online school officials feel they've countered some of the skepticism.

"There's still animosity toward online schools," says Sharon Balke, co-founder of Minnesota Online High School, "but I think the climate has changed."

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Until December, Arik Bjorgaard fumbled his way through 10th grade at the public Marshall County Central in Newfolden. He juggled schoolwork with his farming chores, forgot to turn in his homework and found it hard to stay focused in class.

"I would fall asleep in school all the time," he recalls. "I easily fell off task."

Bjorgaard, a D student, enrolled in the online BlueSky Online Charter School when knee surgery caused him to fall seriously behind. His mom, Gail, says he now gets A's and B's - and not because the material is less challenging. He enjoys mastering history and math on his own time, and he's found it's more difficult to coast through courses online.

"If you don't get your stuff turned in, they call you and say, 'How can we help?' " says Gail, who's since enrolled her daughter, Brianna, in BlueSky.

'Like a tsunami'

BlueSky, Minnesota's first online charter school, opened in 2000. By 2004, it served about 85 students in grades seven through 12. Today, that number stands at 850.

"It's like a tsunami," says Principal Tom Ellis. "We have so many students enrolling it's unbelievable."

Karen Johnson, online learning specialist at the Minnesota Department of Education, says the number of students enrolled in online programs jumped by roughly 50 percent to 60 percent since 2006, to about 2,550 full-time students and more than 2,000 who take online classes in addition to brick-and-mortar instruction.

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The state features seven online charter schools and 14 school district-run programs - all tuition-free certified public school options.

There are no cyberschools in North Dakota, but the state runs the Center for Distance Education, which offers about 150 online courses to middle school and high school students.

These programs attract students looking to learn at their own pace for a range of reasons. Some have a disability or severe anxiety disorders. Others - from teen parents to students in addiction treatment - had trouble keeping up in a traditional setting. Still others are athletes or overachievers impatient with the classroom's pace.

Kirt Nilsson, vice president of the Washington-state-based Insight Schools, says Minnesota's vibrant cyberschool scene is a main reason the company, with schools in Wisconsin, Oregon and California, is coming to the state.

Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher says the union has remained steadfast in its insistence that the state closely monitor online learning and especially the quality of cyberspace-based student-teacher interaction. He points out the limitations online schools face in providing extracurricular activates and chances for face-to-face socialization:

"Online education is not the panacea and the answer to how we'll be educating students," he said. "It could be a piece of it, and that's what we need to look into."

Tracking progress

Many of Minnesota's virtual schools haven't been around long enough to track state assessment scores and No Child Left Behind progress.

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A few, such as BlueSky, failed to meet math, reading and graduation progress requirements for 2007. On math state tests, more than 80 percent of BlueSky 11th-graders failed to meet state standards. But BlueSky's Ellis stresses that the majority of the school's students are at-risk teens who had dropped out of traditional schools or were struggling in brick-and-mortar settings.

A number of online schools performed well on both federal and state assessments. The Cyber Village Academy's 120-some students, for instance, had almost perfect attendance, and more than 60 percent of both fourth- and seventh-graders exceeded state reading standards.

Cyberschool officials say the notion that online students lack teacher oversight is misguided. Balke, the Minnesota Online High School co-founder, says students and teachers stay in touch through e-mail, interactive assignment forms, virtual discussion groups and real-time "Webinars" that simulate a brick-and-mortal classroom.

"You're always in the front row of the classroom. You can't sit in the back and just put in your time," Balke said.

If you go

- What: Insight School of Minnesota information session

- When: 6 to 8 tonight

- Where: Courtyard by Marriott, Moorhead

- Info: Free. (800) 975-8006.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

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