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Going virtual

The Brookings-Harbor School District, which is losing more students each year to homeschooling or online education services, is exploring virtual options to stop the defections or lure back those who have left.

“We asked the question, ‘Why do they chose not to come to Brookings?’ and the answer was, ‘Options.’ They don’t have the options,” said Barron Guido, the district’s special education director. 

He said virtual education opportunities “is basically creating what is best for them: an educational plan to meet the individual needs of all the kids.”

“We need to offer parents and students similar options or we’ll get left behind,” Guido said.

There are currently 1,597 students enrolled in the district, but in the last four years 92 students of various grade levels choose to be homeschooled or take classes on the Internet via private companies such as Oregon Virtual Academy (ORVA) in North Bend and Connections Academy. 

Then there’s the money. The state gives the district about $7,000 per student each year, and when a student leaves the districts, so does the money.

To compete with homeschooling and online options, the district needs to “think outside the box, beyond the brick-and-mortar school system” and offer families more options, Guido recently told the school board.

His solution?

Renovate the district’s existing Pacific Bridges alternative school, turning it into an online learning center for students of all ages and skill levels.

The center would use current staff at Pacific Bridges and, if approved by the board in May, could be operational as of January 2014. 

To establish the center, the district would use money, up to $150,000, from the possible sale of the former Upper Chetco School property to renovate Pacific Bridges. The district would likely have to hire an additional secretary for the center, which would cost $17,000 to $46,000 depending on whether the position was part-time or full time.

Parents and students would then have options of traditional classes, but also online vocational programs including culinary, mechanics and welding,

“We have a mindset of traditional learning where it’s, ‘Fit into this box. Here is our square and we are going to cram you in, no matter what,” Guido said. “We need to break the box. We need to look at what the individual needs of every child in our district are and address them.” 

Classes would be Internet-based but students would report to Pacific Bridges for personalized help from teachers. Students may choose to work from home as long as they have Internet connections readily available. Teachers would be available onsite and online.

The online learning would give students who excel at school and are not challenged enough, those with anxiety, with disabilities or those with social issues such as bullying, a chance at a quality education. Students who are interested in the vocational training, which is not currently offered, may find these options to be beneficial as well.

The goal for the district is that no family should pay out-of-pocket for their child to be educated through high school. If possible, the school district would fund the materials needed for learning in this setting. If the district cannot provide the materials, they could give the family a stipend to buy the materials themselves. The district will work with families to find solutions to make this learning atmosphere beneficial to the students, Guido said.

Declining enrollment rates are the driving factor behind this “outside the box” thinking for Guido. According to Don Sweeney, director of fiscal services, the senior class has 156 students while the kindergarten class has 111. In Curry County, the number of people younger than 18 is declining as well.  

“The benefit is for the school district to recapture the lost (revenue) from the 92 kids who are either attending ORVA or Connections Academy or homeschooled,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney assured that the district is currently in no financial trouble, but doing nothing about the declining enrollment could reduce staff and the programs that are offered.

“Our options are to do nothing and just keep reducing our staff and programs because we will have to. If we did nothing, then we would be in financial trouble,” Sweeney said. “These kids are already choosing this home option anyway. They live in our district; why are we not getting them into our schools?”

Enrollment this year is 1,597 and the predicted change for the 2014-2015 year is 1,551. Offering the virtual learning center and enrolling half of the 92 students would offset the decline and keep the revenue at a similar level. 

Other reasons for offering the virtual learning center include a need to decrease dropout rates, help the students who are not performing well in a traditional setting and give families another option for an education. Guido would eventually like to see this learning opportunity extended countywide. 

School board member Jamie Ryan was very supportive of the effort upon hearing it at last month’s board meeting.

“I think there is a lot of need for this sort of thing,” Ryan said. “I know several parents who are struggling with doing all homeschooling or all virtual. Offering a hybrid of some sort might work.”

Should the board approve the final stages, recruiting could start as early as the end of this school year. Online options could even be available at the beginning of the next school year, Guido said.

“These are our kids and our community and it is our responsibility to educate them,” he said.

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