School districts work with service cooperative to offer distance learning

·4 min read

Oct. 26—Minnesota required every public school district to offer a distance learning option for its students during the first full school year of the pandemic.

When schools opened this fall for in-person learning, they were no longer required to offer an off-site option.

Though some families still wanted it, many school districts were not equipped to offer distance learning to a potentially small number of students. A distance learning program needs approval from the Minnesota Department of Education, which can be a long process.

An alternative for families might have been an online school, but the Southwest West Central Service Cooperative is helping area school districts find a middle ground.

SWWC offers STARRS Online Academy, a K-12 program that 39 school districts are using this school year. The co-op offers education and administrative services to school districts and communities in 18 counties in southwestern Minnesota.

STARRS stands for Students Together Achieving Responsibility, Respect, Safety. The program also offers other educational programs for a number of districts.

The online academy is a supplemental program and doesn't award a diploma, said Stephanie Strenge, teaching and learning program administrator.

Students in the program are counted in their home districts' enrollment, and the districts receive state aid for them. Schools pay a fee based on students' credits. Classes are taught by certified teachers to meet state standards.

"Originally, it was to help offer classes that smaller districts weren't able to offer within their district," Strenge said.

"Now it has grown, and we're working with districts and families that want to continue distance learning," she added.

"Our mission and our goal is to help support our member districts," she said. "We're supplemental in nature, so that requires a partnership with the home district."

The program started in 2017 offering classes for grades 7-12. Last year, the co-op heard from districts looking for ongoing distance learning options, Strenge said. The state granted approval for a K-12 program late last spring.

At each grade level, classes are offered in four core subject areas of English, math, science and social studies. They are also offered electives — a few for elementary students and more for older students, including world languages and computer applications.

STARRS began the school year with nearly 200 students, and enrollment was continuing to grow.

"We explored setting up our own system," said Willmar Superintendent Jeff Holm. But getting state approval takes time, and scheduling and staffing for a distance learning program would have been a challenge.

"When the co-op decided to offer it across the region, it seemed like a much more efficient way to do it," he said.

Willmar started the school year with 33 students in grades K-12 attending the online academy, said Carrie Thomas, director of teaching and learning for the district.

It's a good alternative for families that want their children to continue distance learning, she said, and it provides an education to state standards by state-certified teachers.

"We very much still consider these students our students," Holm said. "It's just that we've contracted with them for instruction."

School districts work with the program on issues like attendance, and the districts provide students' electronic devices.

All K-12 students in Willmar Public Schools are issued an iPad. Middle school and high school students have had iPads for some time.

Pandemic relief aid helped the district provide them for elementary students, too, to aid in distance learning in the past school year.

At New London-Spicer Public Schools, pandemic aid helped the district issue chromebooks to all students. The district had not had one-to-one devices before that.

There were some "hiccups and bumps" in the transition, said Superintendent Bill Adams, "but we were able to get through those things successfully."

Adams said he feels the district is on a road into the future with the added devices.

"We saved a lot on printing costs," he said. "Long-term, we need to continue to make that transition to going fully digital in all our work."

The district is committed to preparing students for a digital future, he said.

"If we're going to fully embrace this transition, we need to put in practices that will help kids in the future," he said.

NLS has one student attending STARRS Academy. While it's a good option for people who have a need, Adams doesn't see it becoming a future trend.

After more than a year of experiencing distance or hybrid learning, "mostly there's a yearning to be in person, with their classmates," he said. Even students who would rather stay home are probably aided by returning to in-person school when possible.

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