Terminal Solution

Tiny Branson throws itself a lifeline with its online school.

Like many places populating the New West, Branson grew into existence in spite of its natural surroundings, not because of them. As any of the native Americans who'd lived in and about the region for centuries could have told the fresh sodbusters, regular rains on the plains of southeast Colorado were the exception, not the rule. "By 1925," says Louden, "the weather had turned back."

The return to normal, parched levels of precipitation was followed by the dustbowl droughts and the Great Depression of the 1930s. A handful of men returning home from World War II tried to make a go of it in Branson, but most soon discovered there was little reason to stay. Electricity eventually reached the burg in 1952, with telephone service following a decade later, but by then the town was well on its way to obscurity and decline.

"By 1980," Louden wrote, "most of the younger people had moved away, all businesses but the wholesale gas business had closed, and many of the older residents had been taken by death, particularly the husbands. Branson became a community of widows, sustained mainly by the existence of the school and the churches."

Richard Louden has written a history of Branson.
Richard Louden has written a history of Branson.

Despite the setbacks, a hearty core of residents has persisted -- and the idea that you can never go home again doesn't apply here. While new residents have been rare, a number of people who grew up in the town have chosen to return to their childhood home. A handful of surnames run through Branson's history like strands of civic DNA.

Branson school superintendent Troy Mayfield, for instance, sees his relatives every day when he goes to work. A picture of his father, Garry Mayfield, Class of 1960, hangs in the main hallway of the Branson school. So do photos of his uncle Larry, '59, and his grandfather, W.V. Mayfield, who served as the school's superintendent from 1959 to 1961. Troy moved away to pursue a career working for various farm bureaus in and out of Colorado, but five years ago, he and Carla decided to return to the Mayfield family's roots.

"I'm a recluse, and I don't like exposing my kids to a lot of big-city stuff," explains Carla, who before moving to Branson had lived mostly in larger municipalities. "Here, our drug problem might be a couple of kids buying a six-pack of beer. This is like some small paradise here."

Along with his brother, John, Ben Doherty can be seen in photographs of Branson's remarkable 1967 baseball and basketball teams, both of which won state championships that year. After high school, Ben moved away for college and a career in corporate agriculture that took him to Texas and California. "But," he says, "I'd always wanted to come back and help with the family ranch." When his father suffered a heart attack in 1992, the decision was made for him, and he raised his family here, too.

The loyalty of the family members who returned to live in Branson has been crucial to the town. They give the place a shared sense of history. More immediately, the returned residents have kept it from withering and disappearing altogether. Even so, their presence has been a stark reminder that Branson was a town surviving on its past.

A recurring criticism of online education is that the personal interaction between student and teacher is missing; a computer doesn't convey excitement like a person. "Our online teachers have to have a unique talent," insists Vilas superintendent Hines. "I tell them, 'If I can't hear a smile in your voice over the phone, I won't hire you.'" Still, even a friendly voice over the telephone is no match for a charismatic teacher.

But lack of human contact is not the only concern. Despite its booming popularity in Colorado and a handful of other states, there is no hard evidence that Internet learning is a reliable way to deliver education to primary- and secondary-school students. At the very least, it certainly is not for everyone.

Online students, for example -- and particularly those in high school -- must be highly motivated and capable of independent study. Younger students, especially, require not only an adult who is home to watch them, but also one willing to be extremely active in their child's learning. "My parents are my teacher's aides," says Judith Stokes, a Branson teacher who also helps develop curriculum.

Moreover, some of online schools' best customers may turn out to be their biggest headache. In recent years, online administrators have discovered that many of their students arrive at computer learning because they haven't been able to make it anywhere else. Cyber-schools have become educational institutions of last resort, a final opportunity for students with criminal records or disciplinary or social problems to get their learning. "And we're coming to the realization that kids who've failed at other places probably are not going to do well in online schools, either," admits Mayfield.

That realization has been highlighted most vividly by the Colorado Student Assessment Program. The CSAP has not been kind to online students. In almost all instances, online students have scored below their bricks-and-mortar peers. (Two years ago, Branson made unwelcome news when it was identified as the lowest-scoring school in the state, although it wasn't necessarily a reflection of the students' skills. Administrators had told online students that they didn't have to take the CSAPs if they didn't want to; many didn't, and Branson's scores reflected that.)

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