Students' Online Class Offerings Increased

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In continuing technology's slow erosion of brick and mortar restraints, Payson students' opportunities for virtual learning expanded Monday night.

The school board approved a partnership with Mesa Unified School District to provide online classes, while saving Payson money.

Payson schools lost $140,000 in revenue last year from students taking online classes, said Superintendent Casey O'Brien.

The state funds school districts based on enrollment by the hour. An electronic attendance system tracks attendance; the data is then sent to the state and kept by the district.

If a student took an English class online, for instance, the district would lose money for his absence during that class period.

Mesa charges Payson $150 per semester course. The student pays nothing.

"We're losing less money, and far less money," Superintendent Casey O'Brien told the board Monday.

Nationally, online learning at the high school level has increased 50 percent in the last five years. In the next 10 years, O'Brien said, online classes could account for 50 percent of all course work.

"We have to be able to meet that challenge as opposed to try and put a road block in there for kids," O'Brien said. "Our challenge is how do we address that."

Classes Mesa offers include art history and short story writing, sociology and psychology, mythology and personal development.

Although online learning for Payson students is not new, district officials have expressed concern that not all the programs meet Payson's academic standards.

Students can still take classes online from schools besides Mesa, but O'Brien said the district could exercise discretion in accepting those credits. Options may be limited to electives, or students may need to pass a district-administered final exam.

Since the district looked at Mesa's program and found it had "academic rigor" students taking its classes will likely not need to pass a test.

O'Brien listed three situations most common with online learners. Some students need credit recovery -- for instance, they failed junior English and need to re-take it during their senior year. Other students seek advanced placement classes they cannot fit into their schedule. Or, a student may want a class the district does not offer: Japanese, for instance.

Though O'Brien acknowledged that classes like language or culinary arts are perhaps less fruitful online, expanding options benefits both the student and the district.

The program will become available in this quarter, possibly in the next couple of weeks.

Continuing with the online vision, the district is developing its own online curriculum. Though it is not legally allowed to offer online classes to students outside the district, it can offer enrolled students the opportunity.

Years ago, the state passed a law that allowed six public and six charter schools to develop virtual programs. Payson was not included.

Eventually, a group of students could sit in a computer classroom, each taking a different class.

The time-intensive process of developing virtual curriculum is underway, and O'Brien said that program could potentially begin this quarter as well.

"They're still shaping the vision of how it's going to work."

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