16 Jun State Launches Online Courses for High Schoolers (MT)

June 16, 2010

By: Kristen Cates
Source: Great Falls Tribune

While many high school students in Great Falls enrolled in summer school courses online this year, a new state program is ramping up efforts to get students enrolled in online high school courses this fall — for free.

Montana’s Digital Academy based at the University of Montana in Missoula is planning to offer 45 online high school courses this fall. This is the first year of the state-funded program.

"There have been other efforts (before)," said Bob Currie, director of the Digital Academy. "But it wasn’t statewide. This is really the first statewide program."

The idea of a digital or online academy has been batted around for years in Montana as a way to spread educational opportunities across the state for a variety of reasons. Currie said rural school districts with students who want to take an elective course have often been hindered from doing so because their district doesn’t have the money to pay for a teacher for that subject.

The other reason is that there are a lot of students, even in the bigger communities, who want to get ahead, so they want to add classes that aren’t taught at their school or are in addition to their regular course load.

The Digital Academy became a reality through the 2009 Montana Legislature, with $2 million in federal stimulus funding allocated to it and the support of several different education organizations behind it.

Currie said students can enroll in the Digital Academy for free because it is the first year of the program.

"My goal this first year is to get 1,500 students," he said. "We’ll take enrollment all the way through September."

A range of classes aligned with state education standards will be offered this fall. Currie said the academy offers everything from oceanography to Chinese to English I. There will be a few advanced placem ent courses offered as well. Currie said there might be a slight cost for books associated with AP courses, but most materials are included.

Tom Moore, assistant superintendent of secondary schools for Great Falls, said the state’s Digital Academy is not to be confused with Great Falls Public Schools’ Virtual Academy for high school students.

The Virtual Academy is accessible to students in Great Falls during the summer so they can get ahead on courses they would normally take during the school year. Moore said the online classes are taught by the district’s teachers.

Additionally, there is a computer-based summer school offered for students who need to make up credits they missed during the past school year. That program is offered at Paris Gibson Education Center.

"It’s a different kind of offering," Moore said.

He said the district developed the Virtual Academy when statewide efforts to start a similar program fell through a few years ago.

Moore said it is exciting that a statewide online academy is offered, but it is going to require local school districts to put in extra work. Moore said the school district’s Digital Academy task force is setting up criteria and guidelines for students who want to sign up for the statewide courses.

Currie said the Digital Academy calls for a mentor or supervisor to be available in each participating school to help students, but the legislation doesn’t say that person has to be a licensed teacher. Currie said a paraprofessional could help the online students.

In Great Falls, a review team will be set up at each of the district’s high schools to approve a student’s entrance i nto the online learning platform.

"We want to make sure they’re successful," Moore said. "(Students) will be monitored by someone in the building. We want to help them learn how to learn this way. We want to provide the support for them."

Moore said the district will hold three informational meetings this summer so parents and students can learn more about the state’s Digital Academy.

The meetings are from 5:30 — 7:30 p.m. June 23, July 13 and Aug. 18 at Paris Gibson Education Center.

Letters to the parents of incoming freshmen also will be put in the mail this week.

Meanwhile, the Digital Academy is hiring Montana-certified teachers to teach the online courses. Currie said academy officials are working with individual districts to hire the teachers, who will receive additional compensation, much like if they took on an extra duty in their own district, such as coaching a sport.

Currie said it is likely there will be a teacher in one community who teaches a class to students from 25 different towns across Montana.

That is good news to the MEA-MFT, the state teacher’s union, which encouraged legislators to approve funding for the Digital Academy.

"We have worked pretty well to make sure we are not violating labor agreements," said Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT.

In previous years, MEA-MFT members voiced concerns over distance-learning programs housed outside Montana with teachers who aren’t certified in the Montana and may not be certified in whatever state the program comes from.

& amp;quot;We see it as yet another way to provide education to kids," Feaver said. "It keeps the money in Montana. I think it’s exciting and good for Montana."

Currie said the hope down is to eventually offer classes that will also count for college credit — that could happen as early as next spring. From there, organizers would like to reach into the middle schools and eventually elementary schools to offer additional credits — all of which was included in legislation that created the Digital Academy.

"We take the legislation very serious," Currie said.

Moore said he appreciates the intent behind the legislation, but like anything that is state-funded there’s always a risk of it not getting funding in the next legislative session.

"The big question we have is the sustainability of this," he said.

Currie said that’s an appropriate concern. Though the stimulus funding runs out in 2011, the Digital Academy is included in the Montana University System’s budget. Currie has received word from Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s office that continuing the academy is a priority of his in the next budget cycle.

"We need a little bit of time to establish the program," Currie said. "We’re having conversations already about how we go back to the Legislature."

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