Online school offers an alternative to traditional classroom
School bells are soon to ring and students will head back into the classroom, teachers greeting them face-to-face.
While computers have become integral components in the classroom, they have not served as a primary educational medium.
BlueSky Online School is Minnesota's first virtual school, the statewide public school serving approximately 700 students in grades 7-12. And that number is likely to swell to 900 as the year moves forward; enrollees are accepted throughout the year.
Like the conventional classroom, there are teachers at the helm, Menahga science instructor and Park Rapids resident David Bjorklund among them.
The teacher-designed classes meet all standards and requirements for a Minnesota high school diploma. The students undergo Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment testing.
A recommended five hours per day are to be spent on schoolwork. But that can be at 4 a.m., depending on the student's schedule, many of them working.
Students are paired with a three-person team consisting of a home base advisor, counselor and social worker as a support system.
Bjorklund, who's on leave of absence from the Menahga District, is a home base advisor to approximately 20 students. He's an instructor to 100 to 140 in the three science classes he "teaches" per quarter via the Internet, two physical science classes and a Minnesota or general ecology class. He posts assignments for the entire quarter at the inception.
His day begins with checking e-mails to field questions on assignments and/or making phone calls.
There is no "typical" BlueSky student. Some are gifted artists, athletes, or, in one case, a motocross racer, their schedules precluding time in the traditional classroom.
Others are kids who do not do well in a "brick and mortar" school due to physical or mental conditions.
Many of the BlueSky students have been home schooled. A number are teen moms.
Some arrive with Individual Education Plans; others are gifted, talented learners.
"We have both ends of the spectrum," Bjorklund said. "Kids who don't do well on the low end tend to shine because we do more one-on-one with them."
'Much more personal'
Students complete work at their schedule of choice, Mondays, for example, may be math day, Tuesdays, social studies. Some complete work within the first two or three days of the week. Six classes is the norm.
Communication may be conducted via texting or Skype. Music lessons and cooking classes, for example, can be viewed via Skype. Students are versed in "online etiquette."
Some classes are available via a virtual classroom. But that's usually an option due to the students' range of schedules.
Online college level courses are also available through the state post secondary enrollment option.
A teacher is keeping track on an academic and personal level, Bjorklund said. If no work is submitted within five days, the student receives a phone call.
The low counselor-to-student ratio, as well as social workers, also enhances learning.
"A team of three follows the kids," he said. The home base advisor is the main component, but the counselor and social worker are pulled in as necessary.
"My main objective is to be a contact," Bjorklund said. "I help out at 8 p.m. if necessary."
As an advisor, he strives to see "the whole person," including hobbies and interests.
"It's much more personal," explained Karen Kraco, a science teacher who also coordinates public relations for BlueSky, which is based in West St. Paul. "We keep tabs on the students. We get to know them. There are a lot of happy students."
"It depends on the kids," Bjorklund said. "This is not for everyone. But for the kids we serve, it works well."
Self-motivation a must
BlueSky graduate Melissa Tchida, who was among Bjorklund's students in Menahga, began the online courses as a junior.
She learned about the school while tutoring a friend in math who enrolled with BlueSky.
"I switched because I didn't feel challenged at a public school," she said.
Her enrollment came with a parental stipulation: Keep your grades up or you're back in public school.
She bumped her Bs and Cs up to As at BlueSky. And she graduated in January, versus May.
Self-motivation is a must, she said. "You have to get the homework done."
She enrolled in college two months after graduation at the Minnesota School of Business in St. Cloud, where she's back in the classroom setting. "And liking it."
The BlueSky opportunity, she said, provided more one-on-one time with teachers. And she was happy with the flexibility of hours, her part-time job no impairment to schoolwork.
"The only thing I missed was playing basketball," she said.