Jing Tsong

Terminal Solution

The town of Branson's baby boom started last spring, although at the time, no one knew that Kate and Jaxon Autry's pregnancy portended anything special. By summer, when the number of expectant families had grown to five, all of Branson was abuzz. As residents gathered at the single-story post office or the white clapboard town hall, talk was of little else besides the tiny enclave's sudden outburst of fertility. With a population teetering on the near side of 100, an influx of seven babies promised a municipal growth spurt unprecedented in nearly a century. "I can't remember any time in the past forty years that we've had more than a couple babies at a time," says Ben Doherty, whose family has lived in the area for more years than that.

But that's what it's like living in this small southeastern Colorado town these days. Like the town's parade of babies, the good news just keeps arriving.

It wasn't so long ago that the town seemed to be limping toward extinction. Branson's population had peaked in the 1920s with about 1,000 residents. But when Dee Buckner closed his leather-working and saddlery studio a couple of years ago, the town was left without a single private commercial enterprise.

"I think we have one county worker who lives here, and we used to have a railroad worker, and I think there's a guy who commutes to Pueblo," says Carla Mayfield, a high school English teacher. "The rest of the people are retired, ranchers, or are employed by the school. The school is the lifeline of this town."

That lifeline, too, had grown faint. A half-century ago, the halls of Branson School echoed with the shouts and footsteps of some 150 children of varying ages and grade levels. As of a decade ago, that number had shrunk to fifty. And by 2001, the student body had dwindled to 32; this year, it's 43.

Two teachers -- a quarter of the instructional staff -- had to be laid off. Even when every student and teacher gathered for school-wide assemblies, the ninety-seat auditorium appeared empty. With an annual capital-improvement budget of about $12,000, the school itself, built in 1923, was crumbling. "We were on the verge of auctioning off desks to raise money," recalls Mayor Beverly Shelden.

No one wanted to consider the consequences of shuttering the only remaining employer in Branson. "The only thing that keeps this town alive, really, is the school," says Richard Louden, a local rancher, unofficial town historian and Class of 1937 Branson graduate. "If it weren't for the teachers and school personnel, Branson would just simply die."

Three years ago, however, school administrators stumbled upon an unlikely scheme to save the their educational system -- and, by extension, Branson itself. They decided to offer any student in the state a chance to get his or her education online, at a home computer.

Working out of his bedroom in, say, Fort Collins or Durango, a child could study with Branson teachers over the Internet. The state department of education reimburses school districts based on their student populations. Branson's educators reasoned that if enough students signed on, the district might collect enough money to keep its tiny school afloat.

The first year of the online school, 2001, administrators merely hoped to sign up enough off-site students to supplement the school's regular population. But to their surprise and delight, they tripled it. The next year, 2002, the number of students leapt by 600 percent. This year that figure doubled again.

By the time the school year got underway this past fall, enough students had signed onto Branson's Internet program that the school's student body had exploded, from 32 to about 1,000. In fact, thanks to public education and computers, in less than three years, the tiny municipality on the New Mexico border has become the fastest-growing school district in the state. It is no exaggeration to say that Internet schooling saved Branson.

Although public schools have been experimenting for some time with online education in the form of correspondence courses and supplemental classes for on-site students, Colorado's first comprehensive online school didn't open until 1995. The Monte Vista Online Academy began as a way to help students living in remote areas of the sprawling south-central Colorado district come to school without actually having to drive there.

But there was another purpose, too: profit. "We wanted to test the market," recalls former superintendent Tim Snyder, who left the district outside of Alamosa at the end of 2001 to direct Colorado Online Learning, a publicly funded provider of online educational materials. "Monte Vista was in declining enrollment," he continues. "This gave us an opportunity to provide a revenue stream for our bricks-and-mortar students."

Colorado's open-enrollment policy means that the state education department pays at least $5,511 to cover the cost of educating each pupil enrolled by a school, no matter where he or she physically lives. The money must be spent to educate the student, of course. But beyond those costs, the Monte Vista academy eventually collected enough extra money from its online students to enable it to hire a new full-time technician, as well as additional computer equipment for the Monte Vista schools.

Despite the potential for even greater profits, however, the Monte Vista Online Academy decided to stay small and close to its original objectives. Today it instructs some 150 cyber-students classified primarily as "alternative" learners -- new moms, kids who flunked out of their neighborhood schools -- who don't fit easily into a traditional school.

Other rural schools facing declining enrollment noticed the success. In 1998, the Vilas School District, in the farthest southeast corner of Colorado, decided to give its students an opportunity to learn online. But, superintendent Bill Hines says, the district then went a step further: It cast a statewide net for any potential students. After all, with the Internet and a computer, no one needed to drive all the way to Vilas to attend its school.

Once again, the strategy, designed to find a new source of money for the home school, was a rousing success. "We didn't realize, when we started, the need for this type of education," says Hines. Without much effort at all, the Vilas Interactive Long Distance School more than doubled the district's resident student population of 103.

Currently, the online school boasts 287 students from across the state. The state money that accompanies them has been a welcome addition to the budget. "It's a big joke about how much money we get," Hines says. "But we're dedicated to teaching children, and to do that, you need money."

The online income has allowed Vilas to hire two new teachers, bring up-to-date technology to the physical school and add a brand-new reading program. "Our online school is a business," Hines explains. "You have to have a margin of profit. School people don't like to talk about profit, but that's what you need."

Although Hines says he intends to cap Vilas's online enrollment at around 300 or 400, that doesn't mean he's out of ideas on how to make some extra spending money from the Internet education business. Next year, he says, the district will unveil its Rocky Mountain E-School, a public-school consulting company that will offer -- for a fee -- Vilas's experience and technology to other school districts looking to start their own online schools.

Several other rural school districts have started their own online academies, each with its own set of goals. "Everyone," says Hines, "has their own agenda in the online business." This past year, Karval, a tiny plains town midway between Colorado Springs and Kansas, opened its own electronic academy. The plan was to bring in enough extra money to fund more courses for the school's regular students, who, because of the district's isolation, were being offered only a basic, limited curriculum.

It's worked. Karval has been able to hire four online teachers, says program director Tammy LeValley, and in addition to the standard math, history and language courses, students in the tiny school district can now study Spanish, French, oceanography and anthropology, among other, decidedly non-rural-school offerings.

In all, Colorado today has twenty cyber-schools educating nearly 4,000 students. Still, administrators agree that no other district in Colorado has pursued electronic students and their public money like the lonely hamlet of Branson. "They have taken online education to a whole new level," admits Snyder of Colorado Online Learning.

It may be the technology highway, but the road to Branson is long and lonely. When the town's last grocery store closed its doors a generation ago, that left Trinidad, an hour's drive to the west, as the closest commercial center. Residents take a perverse pride in their isolation, though, stoically boasting that Branson is "fifty miles to milk."

The locale first served as staging grounds for trips across the mountains separating Colorado's southern border from New Mexico's northern one, where Emery Gap, a nearby crack in the range, makes north-south travel marginally easier. When the Denver, Texas & Fort Worth Railroad came through, in 1888, the site received its first official name, Wilson Switch, after the spur that passed through the spot.

By the beginning of 1915, the area had become active enough to merit its own post office. Indeed, it appeared as though Branson (named after a planner and local landholder in 1918) was poised to burst into a major commerce center -- or at least what passed for one on the carpet-flat plains of far southeastern Colorado. Soon, enough farmers had homesteaded the land so that the railroad put Branson on its list of regular stops. Cars hauled out tons of wheat, corn and beans and brought in construction supplies, dry goods and new residents flocking to the fertile fields surrounding the town.

According to The Branson Story, written five years ago by Richard Louden, in 1920 the town's residents were "supported by a bank, three hotels, two dry goods stores, seven grocery stores, one general store, two hardware stores, one drugstore, a meat market, two lumber yards, one bean elevator and three garages and two blacksmith shops." Locals could select from a menu of several restaurants and choose to read one of two newspapers.

Branson's brush with prosperity was short-lived, however. Two devastating fires within the space of a year wiped out most of the downtown buildings. More influential in the town's demise was that its pioneering residents had been deceived by a meteorological fluke, which they soon discovered.

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."

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.)

The CSAP isn't the only place where cyber-education has struggled. Some online schools boast only a 60 percent course-passing rate. Monte Vista's McFadden recalls one high school senior who took six years to complete her studies. Littleton Schools superintended Stan Scheer, whose district offers online classes, notes that about half of his students taking such courses never finish them.

Even with the brightest students, figuring out how, exactly, to best transfer material from a computer into a child's mind remains a huge question mark. Online learning is so new that discovering what works and what doesn't is a trip into the unknown. While parents and educators may argue strenuously over how well public schools are doing their jobs, at least students know what to expect: a teacher and a pile of textbooks. With computers, 2,000 years of educational tradition are being thrown out the window.

"When we started, we had a terrible program," admits Jerri Stucky, principal of Alamosa High School and director of its 34-student cyber-school. "There is a wide range of quality out there. At first we thought, 'Well, the computer does it all!' But that's a misnomer. What doesn't work is sitting a kid in front of a computer and not interacting with anyone. And there are still lots of programs that just copy textbooks onto a computer."

"Five years ago, there was very little curriculum that you could buy that was worth using," adds Vilas's Hines. "We wrote our own the first year. The second year, we canned it and started over. It's real easy to bore kids to death." Add to that the difficulty of finding an electronic learning system that works for students with diverse needs. As is the case with most online schools, many of Vilas's students are public-school dropouts. About a quarter are girls with babies; 10 percent have to work while they attend school.

"Generally speaking," Hines says, "online curriculum isn't interactive enough; there's too much reading. And if our students didn't do it before they came to us, why would they do it now?"

The fact that online schools are still learning how to make their programs work can be seen in the vast differences in the operation of those schools. Branson says its 24-to-one student-to-teacher ratio works best, while the state's largest cyber-school, Colorado Virtual Academy (COVA), a K-8 charter school in Adams County, claims that its computer curriculum is so good that its student-teacher ratio, fifty to one, is sufficient.

"We're more high-tech; they're more high-touch," says COVA principal Kin Griffith, by way of explaining his less teacher-intensive approach. COVA also requires that its teachers contact students a minimum of once every other week; at Branson, it's once a week. "The COVA teacher is really a coach or supervisor for the student's parent," notes one administrator.

Monte Vista, meanwhile, the grandfather of Colorado's online schools, has decided to keep more of the traditional school in its online program. "We still use teachers; we don't use software to educate our children," says program director Alan McFadden. While other cyber-schools use teachers working out of their homes, for instance, Monte Vista's online teachers remain on site: "Our teachers come into this building every day with a tie on. We're a community, not just a service."

"In some ways, [the variety of approaches] raises concerns about quality assurance," concedes Stevan Kalmon, a senior planning consultant for the Colorado Department of Education's Educational Technology Center. As a state, he says, "we're subsidizing this learning experience without really knowing if it's a quality one."

Even though cyber-schools are a new breed of educational animal, they have been, by necessity, forced to work within an already firmly established educational system. The clash between the two learning methods has ripped plenty of fault lines. One topic that has generated a huge amount of discussion recently, for example, is special education.

In many important ways, online schools are the perfect forum for handicapped students, who represent one of the fastest-growing segments of the online student body. Learning out of the home can make life easier for handicapped pupils unable to navigate the physical challenges and social perils of regular schools. Yet many such students also require plenty of one-on-one attention from educational specialists, such as speech and hearing pathologists, which can't be delivered over a computer.

The issue is how to pay for these services. So far, most cyber-schools have billed the school districts where the students live -- a system permitted by state law. The costs can easily rise to thousands of dollars per student, though. As a result, many "old school"administrators are becoming more and more unhappy with the arrangement.

"What we're doing is applying old ideas to new concepts, and they just don't work," argues Littleton's Scheer, who has fought against the payments. He argues that cyber-schools should have to educate all of their students, including special-ed students, using the $5,511 per pupil they collect from the state -- just as other public schools do. Billing extra for services like special education, he says, is double dipping.

Yet the whole idea of what it costs to educate a student over the Internet is a bit of a mystery. Stucky, of Alamosa, says her figures show it costs about $7,200 per student per year to educate a child electronically. Tim Snyder, of Colorado Online Learning, counters that his research shows the figure is less than $5,000.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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