Terminal Solution

Tiny Branson throws itself a lifeline with its online school.

As she reads her correspondence, Martin's phone rings; a student in Steamboat Springs wants to discuss his geography test. Branson's teachers are instructed to make contact with their students at least once a week, preferably more. Martin pulls the test up on her screen, asks a few questions, instructs the boy to rewrite a paper, and then, after about ten minutes, hangs up.

Back on her computer, Martin keeps a separate folder for each of her students. She opens up an essay one of her seventh-graders mailed in overnight -- a review of the American Chopper television show. She begins editing, writing her comments in Barbie pink: "It doesn't look so scary when it comes through that way," she explains.

After writing two paragraphs of suggestions, punctuated by lots of smiley faces and other strokes, Martin opens up another window, a rubric explaining the goals of the essay. She highlights what the student did well and notes what was missing. Then she attaches a copy of the rubric to the essay with her comments and sends it all back to the student.

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

And so her day will continue. Martin has about fifteen essays to edit. She is an English teacher, but Branson instructors must teach all subjects. In order to make this work for her, Martin has arranged for another online teacher with a background in math to handle her math chores; in exchange, she grades his students' English papers.

Martin checks her schedule and sees that there are three students she must call today for their weekly chat. Depending on the student and parents, the calls can last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or more. She estimates she works about sixty hours a week.

None of this is visible in Branson, of course, where the success of the online school has been viewed like a Powerball lottery pot, a combination of astoundingly good luck and astoundingly good money, all at very little civic cost. The winning ticket arrived just in the nick of time, too.

For the past decade, the community had struggled to come up with one plan or another to stem the falling tide of student enrollment in an effort to save itself. "We'd looked at a number of things," recalls Ben Doherty, a school-board member for the past eleven years.

"For example, we'd been fairly aggressive with foreign exchange students. At one time, in 1997, we had five of them, from Germany, Italy, Mexico and Australia. I mean, when you have fewer than fifty kids and you can increase enrollment by five, that's a more than 10 percent increase." Whenever Branson had the occasion to hire a new teacher, it always gave preference to those who brought children with them.

The idea of an online school to draw kids to Branson -- even if they were actually nowhere near Branson -- was hit on during a meeting in a classroom next to the school cafeteria. The school had already experimented with computer courses for kids in the building.

"We thought, 'Wouldn't it be great for kids to access this from their homes!'" recalls then-superintendent J. Alan Aufderheide. "We thought, 'If we can get twenty students to try this, it'll have been worth the effort.' But after a couple months, it became more a matter of cutting off enrollment."

Aufderheide, a hearty-looking, effusive man whom everyone in Branson calls Dr. J, became an unlikely proselytizer for cyber-education. A retired school superintendent in Steamboat Springs with a full career of school administration already behind him, he'd come to Branson in 1997 after discovering the area during a temporary consulting job in nearby Lamar.

"I liked the fact that it was a small, close-knit community," he says. "Professionally, you get an immediate reward -- or a kick in the shins. Whichever it is, you see the results immediately."

Despite the fact that he himself was nearly computer illiterate, Aufderheide quickly saw the financial potential of an online program. An aggressive advertising campaign was drawn up. The school gave itself a slogan: "A New Day Is Dawning!"

The first year, advertisements for Branson's new school appeared in the Denver Post, the Pueblo Chieftain and an agricultural journal out of La Junta. "Tired of your public school?" they asked. Although the new students signed up from all over the state, there were some pockets of response. About a dozen kids from nearby Stonewall, home to a missionary training facility, showed up.

The following year, Branson added newspaper advertisements in Grand Junction and Alamosa; later the district purchased radio spots asking still more students if they were ready to experience the benefits of online learning. One newspaper plug asked parents if they felt safe having their kids at their local public school, and, if not, would they like to consider keeping them at home while still letting them attend a public school? "Safety is a big deal," Aufderheide says. "The Columbine factor."

The program didn't grow easily. "I've likened it to mapping furniture in a pitch-black room by running through it," says Aufderheide, who has since turned over his district superintendent duties to Mayfield so that he can work full-time at the online school. But Branson online did grow fast.

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