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Duluth's online high school gives students flexibility

When Deb Halver began teaching 30 years ago, the technology discussion was about whether students should be allowed to use calculators in their math classes and the best way to clean an overhead projector sheet.

Her students now learn their math lessons entirely from online curriculum, videos and apps through Academic Excellence Online, Duluth’s online high school that is completing its first semester this month after receiving Minnesota Department of Education approval in August.

Twenty-six students enrolled for the first semester and about that many have applied to join the school for the second semester, program coordinator Chris Vold said at a school open house Wednesday.

Halver has a total of 15 students enrolled in her three math classes, and she said she’s looking forward to having more students enrolled in the second semester.

The online school’s first-year goal was to enroll 40 students, and Vold said he expects the program to continue to grow. Most of the students are from Duluth, but a few have enrolled from  Hermantown, Proctor and Two Harbors.

Students from area school districts are seeking course offerings through Duluth’s online school that aren’t offered in their home school districts, Vold said. The school offers classes in 21 subjects, and Vold said they are hoping to expand beyond the existing curriculum of core classes with few electives.

The school also is a way for a student to complete their education with the Duluth school district, as is the case with a 12th-grader who enrolled to finish his year in the Duluth school district after his family relocated to the Twin Cities area, Vold said.

“Education doesn’t need to be cookie-cutter,” Vold said of the flexibility provided in online education.

Students aren’t identical, and providing more opportunities means students have more chances to succeed, he said.

Although online schooling gives students more flexibility, the curriculum is given to students a week at a time. The online school isn’t a fast track for completing high school, Vold said, adding that rigor in education is important to the Duluth school district’s leadership.

English teacher Joe Schingen explained that online school isn’t for everyone, but it’s great for some students. Students need to be good with deadlines, navigating through lessons at home and able to ask for help when they need it. It’s also important that students who enroll in online school have support at home, he said.

Halver said the online school’s first semester has been a learning experience as much for the teachers as it’s been for the students. Schingen added that Academic Excellence Online is trying to be the “second draft” of online schools, learning from ones that have existed before.

Teachers are using experiences in the first semester to adjust the teaching in the second semester to better meet students’ needs, Schingen said. The upcoming focus for staff is to connect more with the students’ learning mentor, an adult at the child’s home who helps keep them on task.

Halver has found that her role has changed with three online math classes she teaches. She no longer is presenting information and asking questions as she would in a brick-and-mortar classroom, but is instead supplementing the curriculum and answering questions on the material, she said.

Transferring lessons from a classroom to an online class is a work in progress, Halver said. However, striving to anticipate which math concepts students will immediately understand and which they’ll need more instruction to grasp is the same for her online as it is in a traditional classroom, she said.

Online education provides an opportunity for Schingen to include different perspectives from various media in his class’s curriculum. A lesson now can include a book excerpt, a new poem, a YouTube video and a TED Talk, he explained.

A strong focus this year also has been on fine-tuning communication between students and teachers to keep them engaged, Vold said. Making that connection means a better chance of success for the student, he explained.

Halver talks with her students via email, phone calls, texts, Google Hangout and Google Chat. During Google Hangout sessions, they can hear her talk through solving a math problem while seeing her solve it on the computer screen. Students can interact with her and ask her questions as she’s discussing the lesson, she said.

She also creates videos for students when she thinks they may need more explanation than the curriculum provides, and uses apps to push kids into thinking further about the process of solving problems than computing the problem to get it right, she said.

Using Google Docs, students can edit a draft essay in real time as they discuss the project with Schingen. The online format also allows for more personalized instruction, Schingen said. He can have a one-on-one discussion with a student to answer a question in an online class, whereas it’s difficult to give meaningful feedback to each individual student in a classroom with 30 kids, he said.