Terminal Solution

Tiny Branson throws itself a lifeline with its online school.

Money is also the disputed prize in what is perhaps the biggest battle online schools have fought over the past five years. Imprecise counts show that Colorado is home to anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 home-schooled students. Because of its marriage of structured curriculum to in-home study, online education has been enormously appealing to many parents who have kept their children away from public schools for a variety of reasons.

The state would prefer not to have to pay for those students to attend public schools. At an annual per-student cost of between $5,000 and $10,000, the financial hit would be enormous. So in 1998, state lawmakers, with cyber-schools firmly in their sights, passed a new rule stating that a student must have attended a physical school the year prior to signing on with an online school.

For a couple of years, online schools got around the statute by using what Snyder calls the "per-pupil reimbursement shuffle." Schools like Branson, COVA and Monte Vista would invite interested home-school students to their physical building for as long as a couple of months or as short as a day or two. Once there, the students would be declared public-school attendees, at which point they could be signed up for online courses.

Jing Tsong
Branson's 1923 school is home to 43 students.
Branson's 1923 school is home to 43 students.

The legislature caught on in 2001, however, and passed a new law that clarified that students must have attended a physical public school for a term before switching to an online academy. Still, home-schoolers are enough of a financial catch that online schools are getting creative.

Littleton, for example, in partnership with Connections Academy, a public/private online educator with schools in Denver and Colorado Springs, plans to open a "home-schooling resource center" next year in its Whitman Elementary School. According to Scheer, home-schooled students would enroll at Whitman for a semester, then transfer into Connections after a legally sufficient time had passed.

On an unseasonably warm and sunny February mid-week day, Patty Martin, a Branson teacher, prepares for work. Dressed casually, she pours herself a soda and sits down in front of her computer in her Littleton townhouse, 250 miles away from the town of Branson. "I drove there once," she says. "Oh, my God."

Like many online teachers, Branson instructors are paid per student as opposed to an annual salary -- an average of $38.50 per pupil per week, or about $33,600 per year with a full load of 24 students. Most electronic instructors receive no benefits (COVA and Monte Vista are exceptions) but gladly accept the loss in compensation in exchange for the greater schedule flexibility.

"I wanted to go back to grad school, and Branson's schedule permitted that," Martin says. Most days, she can take a break to go do research, then return and teach into the evening. A sizable number of online teachers are new mothers, who like to be able to stay home with their babies while still working and earning an income.

Teachers say there are other benefits to online instruction, as well. After four years of teaching middle school in a physical classroom, for instance, Martin says she doesn't miss the discipline. "Classroom management was always something I'd been capable at -- I can keep kids in line and focused and working," she says. "But getting away from classroom management definitely lowered my stress level."

Moreover, Martin adds, despite being physically removed from her students, she knows them better. For starters, she teaches only two dozen kids versus about sixty in the bricks-and-mortar classroom. "Getting to know so many parents was challenging and sometimes impossible," she says. By comparison, she now has a weekly conversation with all of her students' parents.

"It's more like tutoring," says Julie True, a young Branson teacher who, with a new baby at home, decided she could handle eight elementary students.

Although most online teachers concede they occasionally miss the happy hubbub and human contact of the physical classroom, many also say they have found the switch to cyber-learning bracing. "I've got that sense of purpose again," says Martin, who started teaching as an Americorps volunteer. "I'm reinvigorated about public schools again."

Martin's students are fairly representative of the spectrum of kids who decide to check into online schooling. A number are from families who previously home-schooled their children. A few are from religiously conservative families so wary of the secular temptations at public schools that they prefer to keep their children at home.

One of Martin's students has diabetes; another is a heavily medicated bi-polar schizophrenic. An eighteen-year-old boy has fallen so far behind that he's studying at a ninth-grade level; an eighteen-year-old girl is still working on fourth-grade math. A 22-year-old woman dropped out of school at seventeen to have two babies. A Colorado Springs tenth-grader chose to study online because he is on a traveling hockey team; a laptop and cell phone mean he can keep up with his peers. An eighth-grade boy lives on a chicken farm fifty miles from the closest school. Another boy wants to graduate a year earlier than he would at his local school.

The first thing Martin does is to log on to her computer to check her e-mails. One of them is from a student sending in the results of his self-monitored gym class -- a series of exercises that he keeps track of on a graph. He must do thirty minutes of activity per day. Martin signs him off.

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