Terminal Solution

Tiny Branson throws itself a lifeline with its online school.

The school's phenomenal online spurt has been painless for the community, too, and any evidence of convulsive expansion is all but invisible in Branson. The online school is run by eight staffers out of a double-wide trailer kitty-corner from the school. (A vacant lot across the street is already being staked out for a new building to house the online operations.) The 1,000 new students have resulted in no additional traffic, no drain on the town's water system, no drug problems. It is as if Branson had attracted a far-off benefactor.

Yet there are plenty of signs of the program's success. A brand-new stucco addition pokes out of the old brick school, home to much-needed -- and much-praised -- bathrooms and locker rooms. The school also replaced its old windows with energy-efficient ones. There's a new addition on the building housing vocational and agricultural studies. And the auditorium floor, which had grown black with age, is now as shiny as a basketball court.

Other changes are more subtle. The teachers look maybe a bit happier -- and with good reason. The online income has allowed the school to boost the average annual salary of a Branson classroom teacher from $17,500, four years ago, to about $27,500 -- a 60 percent pay raise. (Following longtime tradition, Branson also provides free housing in a "teacherage" set up across the street from the school.) Perhaps most dramatic is the budget-reserve item in the school's annual spending plan. In just four years, it has risen from about $86,000 to $605,000 -- a 700 percent jump.

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

Branson School's rising tide has lifted the town's welfare on its rich swells. Because of the influx of online money, for example, Shirley Davis has a job: looking after the new babies born to the teachers who, thanks to their salary increase, can now afford to pay her for the work. The new cash floating around Branson has also meant that Kim Tichener, a rancher's wife, has been able to find work cleaning homes -- a welcome supplement considering the pending wedding of her daughter.

When Shari Lingus was hired as a secretary at the school, it meant that even though her husband was laid off at the ranch where he worked, the couple and their four children could stay in Branson. Meanwhile, Willard Louden, a rancher and painter who returned to Branson about a month ago after a stint in the Peace Corps, began meeting with some other nearby residents to start work on an economic-development plan -- an optimistic project that hasn't been tackled in Branson in at least half a century.

On a recent weekend morning, several dozen kids and their parents stream into the Wildlife Experience, a combination private museum and theme park set in beautiful new sandstone building just outside of Parker. The Branson Online School has reserved the facility's Great Room as a suitable location to unveil its new outdoor program.

Families sit at round tables. Aufderheide works the room as MC. "Why in the world would an Internet-based virtual school want to have an outdoor program?" Dr. J, dressed casually in sneakers and a fleece coat, asks sensibly enough.

He answers himself: "We are big, and we are going to get bigger! And we are going to be even bigger on experiential education -- experiencing the real world. Right along with that, we believe that education can and should be fun. We believe that real-life experiences like today's broaden horizons."

After the introductory speeches, the families disperse into the Wildlife Experience's exhibits. The assembled parents express the range of common reasons why they have selected a cyber-school for their children. "I like the idea that he's at home and I know what he's doing and who he's messing with," Donald Kinser says, pulling his son Donavin next to him. Kinser travels a lot on business and likes to have his family with him. This way, he explains, they can be together and the kids won't miss a thing.

Leewitt and Erik Akia were home-schooling their son and daughter when they heard about Branson from a family friend. They liked the idea of a public education -- Erik attended the School of Mines -- combined with what they describe as a home environment more positive and supportive than that which the parents experienced when they attended school.

Ninth-grader Jake Marcus, by comparison, dropped out after a year at Branson. "I kind of got bored doing two hours of work and then having nothing to do," he explains. "And I missed the interaction with other kids. There wasn't anybody to talk to; you just were stuck at home all day."

Many of the teachers gathered for the event seemed cautiously optimistic as well. With a new baby at home, Jennifer Finck says she loves the work and the schedule: "It's amazing -- the perfect mix of working and staying at home." At the same time, most instructors add that they miss certain aspects of traditional classroom education -- decorating for holidays, for example, or working next to their students on hands-on projects. The majority of teachers also concede that, while cyber-schools clearly are filling a need, they themselves would not want to have attended school online.

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