Originally posted July 18, 2017 by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
By Kristen Taketa
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
The rural Grandview School District in Jefferson County has only 825 students during the school year. But this summer, it raked in thousands of state dollars for educating about 1,500 students through its own online school.
Students from across the state — not just from Grandview — are drawn to the summer online offerings. Some are high school students looking to make up for a class they previously failed. Others take state-required courses such as personal finance, a move that frees up their schedule during the regular school year.
All the students are taking the classes tuition-free, thanks to state funding that has helped the district beef up its summer virtual class offerings.
Grandview’s Missouri Online Summer Institute is open to all Missouri students for free regardless of home district or location. Students from every county in Missouri have enrolled in one of 125 summer online courses, ranging from Advanced Placement calculus to Introduction to Agriscience to International Business.
“I did very much enjoy all of the courses online because I was able to sit at home on my recliner … and I was able to take my classes,” said Jonathan Gowan, a sophomore who attends De Soto High School in Jefferson County. He is taking engineering and design, astronomy, personal finance and physical education through the Missouri Online Summer Institute.
The fact that Grandview can offer such a broad range of summer online courses for students statewide is owed at least partly to its investment in virtual education year-round.
For the past decade, the district has invested tens of thousands of dollars into building an online education program. Doing so has allowed Grandview to offer courses for its own students that it wouldn’t have been able to because of cost limitations, including AP courses.
“We were a rural district with limited resources and trying to figure out ways to be competitive with large school districts,” said Mike Brown, coordinator for the Missouri Online Summer Institute and former Grandview superintendent. “We turned to virtual education as a way to enhance our curriculum and to give our students an opportunity to take anything they wanted to take.”
Grandview is not a wealthy district, Brown said. The main businesses there are a rock quarry and a small rubber belt plant that employs about half a dozen people. The rest of the district is largely farms and homes.
Because the high school is small — it has about 400 students — officials say it’s impractical to hire a teacher for an advanced class that may have 10 students interested one year, then zero the next.
“Our kids needed the ability to have access to things we could not offer them without virtual (classes),” Brown said.
If it weren’t for its online program, Grandview wouldn’t offer any AP courses. By offering courses online, it can access certified teachers provided by a private vendor.
During the school year, about 20 percent of Grandview High School students take an online course. The school offers a study hall period where students can take online classes, and the district has invested in tablets and laptops for all students.
The district uses online curricula from Fuel Education, part of online education company K12. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has authorized Fuel Education as a course provider for the state’s online education program, MOVIP.
Officials say the Fuel Education courses are rigorous and not an academic shortcut for students. For example, a calculus course requires students to show how they got to an answer, rather than simply writing the answer down.
The options even include physical education courses. For those classes, students must perform physical activities and keep a time log under the watch of an approved adult.
Fuel Education courses also allow students who fail a test or quiz to study longer, then retake the assessment.
Grandview has not conducted a review or study of the effectiveness of its online program because of small sample sizes, according to the district. But it plans to do so in the future.
Grandview’s online summer school has proven popular despite minimal advertising, officials say. Administrators hope to persuade Missouri to allow a statewide online school, administered by the district, during the school year.
“We think there is a need for a year-round virtual school program in the state of Missouri,” Brown said.
Kristen Taketa is the K-12 education reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.