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Terminal Solution

Tiny Branson throws itself a lifeline with its online school.

In between the lines, the gathering speaks volumes about the future of online education. Most educators agree that, as Aufderheide predicts, cyber-schooling almost certainly will grow bigger. Yet they also admit that it will never work for everyone, and that, ironically, its success will probably always depend on the human contact that bridges the gap between the computer and the pupil. Martin, for example, has started meeting with her writing students at regular intervals in Starbucks coffee shops around the state. There are some things, she explains, that just can't be conveyed across phone lines.

The town, meanwhile, will always be small. In addition to her duties as mayor, Beverly Shelden will, for the foreseeable future, continue to fill in as a substitute bus driver and serve as treasurer of the school's parent-teacher association -- "And there's no president, vice president or secretary," she points out. She is also mother to exactly one half of the real, not the virtual, Class of 2004; her twin boys graduate this May.

Yet, for the moment, it's enough to know that the school -- and the town -- are here to stay. "Branson," agrees Aufderheide, "is on the map in a way it never was before."

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