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Despite the potential for even greater profits, however, the Monte Vista Online Academy decided to stay small and close to its original objectives. Today it instructs some 150 cyber-students classified primarily as "alternative" learners -- new moms, kids who flunked out of their neighborhood schools -- who don't fit easily into a traditional school.
Other rural schools facing declining enrollment noticed the success. In 1998, the Vilas School District, in the farthest southeast corner of Colorado, decided to give its students an opportunity to learn online. But, superintendent Bill Hines says, the district then went a step further: It cast a statewide net for any potential students. After all, with the Internet and a computer, no one needed to drive all the way to Vilas to attend its school.
Once again, the strategy, designed to find a new source of money for the home school, was a rousing success. "We didn't realize, when we started, the need for this type of education," says Hines. Without much effort at all, the Vilas Interactive Long Distance School more than doubled the district's resident student population of 103.
Currently, the online school boasts 287 students from across the state. The state money that accompanies them has been a welcome addition to the budget. "It's a big joke about how much money we get," Hines says. "But we're dedicated to teaching children, and to do that, you need money."
The online income has allowed Vilas to hire two new teachers, bring up-to-date technology to the physical school and add a brand-new reading program. "Our online school is a business," Hines explains. "You have to have a margin of profit. School people don't like to talk about profit, but that's what you need."
Although Hines says he intends to cap Vilas's online enrollment at around 300 or 400, that doesn't mean he's out of ideas on how to make some extra spending money from the Internet education business. Next year, he says, the district will unveil its Rocky Mountain E-School, a public-school consulting company that will offer -- for a fee -- Vilas's experience and technology to other school districts looking to start their own online schools.
Several other rural school districts have started their own online academies, each with its own set of goals. "Everyone," says Hines, "has their own agenda in the online business." This past year, Karval, a tiny plains town midway between Colorado Springs and Kansas, opened its own electronic academy. The plan was to bring in enough extra money to fund more courses for the school's regular students, who, because of the district's isolation, were being offered only a basic, limited curriculum.
It's worked. Karval has been able to hire four online teachers, says program director Tammy LeValley, and in addition to the standard math, history and language courses, students in the tiny school district can now study Spanish, French, oceanography and anthropology, among other, decidedly non-rural-school offerings.
In all, Colorado today has twenty cyber-schools educating nearly 4,000 students. Still, administrators agree that no other district in Colorado has pursued electronic students and their public money like the lonely hamlet of Branson. "They have taken online education to a whole new level," admits Snyder of Colorado Online Learning.
It may be the technology highway, but the road to Branson is long and lonely. When the town's last grocery store closed its doors a generation ago, that left Trinidad, an hour's drive to the west, as the closest commercial center. Residents take a perverse pride in their isolation, though, stoically boasting that Branson is "fifty miles to milk."
The locale first served as staging grounds for trips across the mountains separating Colorado's southern border from New Mexico's northern one, where Emery Gap, a nearby crack in the range, makes north-south travel marginally easier. When the Denver, Texas & Fort Worth Railroad came through, in 1888, the site received its first official name, Wilson Switch, after the spur that passed through the spot.
By the beginning of 1915, the area had become active enough to merit its own post office. Indeed, it appeared as though Branson (named after a planner and local landholder in 1918) was poised to burst into a major commerce center -- or at least what passed for one on the carpet-flat plains of far southeastern Colorado. Soon, enough farmers had homesteaded the land so that the railroad put Branson on its list of regular stops. Cars hauled out tons of wheat, corn and beans and brought in construction supplies, dry goods and new residents flocking to the fertile fields surrounding the town.
According to The Branson Story, written five years ago by Richard Louden, in 1920 the town's residents were "supported by a bank, three hotels, two dry goods stores, seven grocery stores, one general store, two hardware stores, one drugstore, a meat market, two lumber yards, one bean elevator and three garages and two blacksmith shops." Locals could select from a menu of several restaurants and choose to read one of two newspapers.
Branson's brush with prosperity was short-lived, however. Two devastating fires within the space of a year wiped out most of the downtown buildings. More influential in the town's demise was that its pioneering residents had been deceived by a meteorological fluke, which they soon discovered.