Online Learning Helps Rural Communities

The tiny town of Branson, Colo., has about 100 residents. But its elementary school has nearly 1,000 students — most enrolled online. A look at how online education has made a difference in some rural communities. Member station KRCC's Stephen Raher reports.

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Nearly half of all rural public school districts in this country are using some form of online education. That finding comes from the US Department of Education's first ever national study of what's called distance education. In southeastern Colorado, one tiny town has taken advantage of this trend, increasing its virtual student body fifteenfold. From member station KRCC, Stephen Raher reports.

STEPHEN RAHER reporting:

The town of Branson, Colorado, sits just a stone's throw from the Colorado-New Mexico border. Less than 100 people live there. Main Street is unpaved and the school is located in a two-story red brick building.

Dr. J. AUFDERHEIDE (Former Superintendent): And then sometime shortly after that school was built, about half the town burned down.

RAHER: Dr. Jay Aufderheide is the former school superintendent.

Dr. AUFDERHEIDE: And not too long after that, half of the half that was remaining burned down, but these folks are survivors.

RAHER: And that small band of survivors includes 65 local students at the schoolhouse.

(Soundbite of people talking)

RAHER: Despite the small number of kids running down the halls here, there are actually just shy of 1,000 children enrolled in the Branson school district. Most are students of Branson School OnLine, the district's five-year-old Internet-based program for grades K through 12. Students come from throughout the state, from urban, rural and suburban areas. Since its conception in 2000, Branson OnLine has grown to become the second-largest cyberschool in Colorado.

Program founder Jay Aufderheide says the online school has brought new energy and funds to Branson. Colorado's school choice law makes it possible for small towns to operate an online program. When a student enrolls in the online program, Branson receives the per-pupil funding of nearly $5,600 from the student's home district. A lot of that money goes to providing students with computers and materials, but it has also brought money into the struggling economy of Branson. Several new administrative positions have been filled by local residents, and a new building was built to house the program. The online teachers, however, are located throughout the state.

Ms. ELIZABETH DAVIS: This is my screen. Their screen looks like this, slightly different aspect.

RAHER: Elizabeth Davis is a case study in the non-traditional classroom. She's a Branson teacher whose work schedule allows her to stay home with her own children. On a Wednesday afternoon, she gives a tour of her virtual classroom while sitting in her Colorado Springs house 175 miles north of Branson.

Ms. DAVIS: So when you go to my e-mail box, these are assignments that have been turned in.

RAHER: Part of Davis' flexible schedule includes meeting with some of her students face to face. Senior Ryan Lutz(ph) takes advantage of these optional weekly sessions. He says he's much happier in the Branson program than he was in his local school, but he's quick to add that online learning isn't for everyone.

RYAN LUTZ (Student): If they're going to enroll in this type of schooling and they're not going to do anything, then there's no point in really coming out, but I think it just depends on the person.

RAHER: Branson students and their parents have picked online education for a wide variety of reasons. Some students have medical problems or are teen-age parents, some have demanding work schedules and others just weren't happy in their local school. Students and teachers agree that online learning requires more work and self-discipline, but it does have its advantages. Teacher Elizabeth Davis is responsible for seeing her 24 students through all of their classes in multiple subject areas, but Davis says this extra work is worth it.

Ms. DAVIS: When I taught in brick and mortar, I had 150 students. At Branson, a full load for a teacher is 24 students. I know my kids so much more.

RAHER: Still, critics of the widespread expansion of online education say the model lacks accountability and needs greater oversight. In fact, state legislators attempted to take some of the per-pupil monies back earlier this year to create an oversight board for online education in Colorado. That effort was defeated, and for now, schools like Branson OnLine will continue to grow.

For NPR News, I'm Stephen Raher.

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