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Siouxland schools

Branstad makes $4.5 million push to expand online learning

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SIOUX CITY | Online education could get a substantial financial and enrollment boost if Gov. Terry Branstad convinces the Legislature to set aside $4.5 million in funding for the next three years.

Nearly 1,000 students across Iowa take online classes currently, but the state still has students on a waiting list. The governor's education reform plan would open the program to 2,500 students each year and require districts to pay $250 per pupil to support classes when funding expires.

"This just expands the opportunity for students to learn more," said Linda Fandel, a policy adviser to Branstad. "The focus of the governor's reform package is to raise student achievement."

Sioux City schools Superintendent Paul Gausman called the expansion a good move for students and districts. The online classes give students access to courses that might not hold enough interest to warrant hiring a teacher at their school building. Classes could include advanced math and science, or foreign languages.

"In some of the most rural areas of our state, where they aren't able to offer a full complement of courses because there are not enough students, this will offer more resources," Gausman said.

DIFFERENT FROM VIRTUAL SCHOOLS

Online programs are administered through a website that allows students to work with a teacher remotely. Students also are monitored by district employees who ensure coursework is completed. Students are required to log in and attend courses on a schedule. 

The courses are separate from two virtual schools that drew controversy last year. Those programs, operated by Virginia-based K12 and Baltimore-based Connections Academy, are private companies that run online-only programs across the nation. Some education leaders had concerns about the hours students spent in the virtual schools learning and how that affects social interaction among students, peers and teachers.

In Iowa, K12 is run through the Clayton Ridge school district in Guttenberg. Connections Academy is administered by the CAM school district in Anita. Both schools are in their first year.

The virtual schools differ from the state programs because students take every course through the Internet. Iowa's online courses supplement what's already available in brick-and-mortar schools.

Students who graduate from either of the virtual programs leave with a degree from the administering school district. They also bring with them about $6,000 in state aid that originally went to their local public district.

According to the Iowa Department of Education, 235 students are enrolled in the Connections Academy program and 67 are enrolled in the K12 program. The academy hopes to see enrollment grow by up to 35 percent next year.

Connections Academy Principal James Brauer said the state's push to increase its own online courses won't have an immediate impact on his school, but he imagines it will build support for alternative classes. That could lead to more families considering whether the virtual learning environment meets their needs.

"The million dollar question is, why enroll in this?" Brauer said. "It meets the needs of a few individual families. In some cases we have specialized programs. Maybe a child is hospitalized or has special education needs."

'NOT AN ABSOLUTE REPLACEMENT'

The governor's call for more online classes is part of his education reform package aimed at improving student performance. The bill also addresses professional development and teacher compensation.

The goal is to have Iowa in the top 10 states for student standardized reading and math scores by 2019. Students currently fall in the middle of the pack, according to national test data.

The Senate bill currently remains in the education subcommittee, which intends to finish its review in the next couple of weeks.

A House bill was passed to the full Education Committee last week and is expected to make it to the House floor for debate within the week.

The Iowa State Education Association teachers union supports the state's push to expand online courses, but the group has concerns about Web-only schools. Issues include ensuring students have an opportunity for physical education and socialization.

Gausman said he worries about the availability of such programs as music and art.

"Online learning is an incredible enhancement, not an absolute replacement to schools," he said.

Heike Craig, of Sioux City, said her children still meet up with their friends from the Sioux City schools and play in local sports leagues despite attending Connections Academy.

Craig enrolled her ninth-grade son, Andrew, in Connections Academy due to problems with bullying. Her sixth-grade son, Ian, wanted to also use the online school after seeing his brother use it.

The online school is not for everyone, Craig said. The program often relies on parents to be more involved with the teaching process -- though the class is run by a certified instructor. Students also must log in daily to attend class sessions and group discussions.

"I was looking for something different because of Andrew's needs," Craig said. "I was afraid I would have to home school him, but I was not sure I could do what was required because of the high school content."

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Nate Robson is the education reporter for the Journal. He writes about issues impacting local school districts and colleges.

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