Terminal Solution

Tiny Branson throws itself a lifeline with its online school.

The town of Branson's baby boom started last spring, although at the time, no one knew that Kate and Jaxon Autry's pregnancy portended anything special. By summer, when the number of expectant families had grown to five, all of Branson was abuzz. As residents gathered at the single-story post office or the white clapboard town hall, talk was of little else besides the tiny enclave's sudden outburst of fertility. With a population teetering on the near side of 100, an influx of seven babies promised a municipal growth spurt unprecedented in nearly a century. "I can't remember any time in the past forty years that we've had more than a couple babies at a time," says Ben Doherty, whose family has lived in the area for more years than that.

But that's what it's like living in this small southeastern Colorado town these days. Like the town's parade of babies, the good news just keeps arriving.

It wasn't so long ago that the town seemed to be limping toward extinction. Branson's population had peaked in the 1920s with about 1,000 residents. But when Dee Buckner closed his leather-working and saddlery studio a couple of years ago, the town was left without a single private commercial enterprise.

"I think we have one county worker who lives here, and we used to have a railroad worker, and I think there's a guy who commutes to Pueblo," says Carla Mayfield, a high school English teacher. "The rest of the people are retired, ranchers, or are employed by the school. The school is the lifeline of this town."

That lifeline, too, had grown faint. A half-century ago, the halls of Branson School echoed with the shouts and footsteps of some 150 children of varying ages and grade levels. As of a decade ago, that number had shrunk to fifty. And by 2001, the student body had dwindled to 32; this year, it's 43.

Two teachers -- a quarter of the instructional staff -- had to be laid off. Even when every student and teacher gathered for school-wide assemblies, the ninety-seat auditorium appeared empty. With an annual capital-improvement budget of about $12,000, the school itself, built in 1923, was crumbling. "We were on the verge of auctioning off desks to raise money," recalls Mayor Beverly Shelden.

No one wanted to consider the consequences of shuttering the only remaining employer in Branson. "The only thing that keeps this town alive, really, is the school," says Richard Louden, a local rancher, unofficial town historian and Class of 1937 Branson graduate. "If it weren't for the teachers and school personnel, Branson would just simply die."

Three years ago, however, school administrators stumbled upon an unlikely scheme to save the their educational system -- and, by extension, Branson itself. They decided to offer any student in the state a chance to get his or her education online, at a home computer.

Working out of his bedroom in, say, Fort Collins or Durango, a child could study with Branson teachers over the Internet. The state department of education reimburses school districts based on their student populations. Branson's educators reasoned that if enough students signed on, the district might collect enough money to keep its tiny school afloat.

The first year of the online school, 2001, administrators merely hoped to sign up enough off-site students to supplement the school's regular population. But to their surprise and delight, they tripled it. The next year, 2002, the number of students leapt by 600 percent. This year that figure doubled again.

By the time the school year got underway this past fall, enough students had signed onto Branson's Internet program that the school's student body had exploded, from 32 to about 1,000. In fact, thanks to public education and computers, in less than three years, the tiny municipality on the New Mexico border has become the fastest-growing school district in the state. It is no exaggeration to say that Internet schooling saved Branson.


Although public schools have been experimenting for some time with online education in the form of correspondence courses and supplemental classes for on-site students, Colorado's first comprehensive online school didn't open until 1995. The Monte Vista Online Academy began as a way to help students living in remote areas of the sprawling south-central Colorado district come to school without actually having to drive there.

But there was another purpose, too: profit. "We wanted to test the market," recalls former superintendent Tim Snyder, who left the district outside of Alamosa at the end of 2001 to direct Colorado Online Learning, a publicly funded provider of online educational materials. "Monte Vista was in declining enrollment," he continues. "This gave us an opportunity to provide a revenue stream for our bricks-and-mortar students."

Colorado's open-enrollment policy means that the state education department pays at least $5,511 to cover the cost of educating each pupil enrolled by a school, no matter where he or she physically lives. The money must be spent to educate the student, of course. But beyond those costs, the Monte Vista academy eventually collected enough extra money from its online students to enable it to hire a new full-time technician, as well as additional computer equipment for the Monte Vista schools.

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