This year, Thief River Falls Public Schools is offering students a fully online option called the NW Online Learning Academy. The program is available to Kindergarten to Grade 8 students at public schools in Thief River Falls and surrounding school districts.
“It’s mainly related to COVID, so we have flexibility with our families who are nervous about going to school, which is why we have worked very hard to make this happen in a very short period of time, ”Stepan said.
The e-learning academy has 32 students, including four from outside the district.
According to Stepan, providing online learning options is also part of the district’s strategic plan to better tailor learning experiences to the needs of students while allowing them to stay in the school district.
“Thinking of all the options children have these days for finding a school – there is home schooling, charter schools, online schools, private schools, Catholic schools, just a range of schools. ‘options for the kids to try different things – we want to do I’m sure the kids can stay in Thief River Falls public schools, ”Stepan said. “Providing this online learning academy will be an option for our families to stay here in Thief River Falls.”
Thief River Falls Public Schools is offering the program under an interim license through the Minnesota Department of Education for this school year to provide an online option during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but Stepan hopes to be fully certified to offer. optional online learning in the future.
Programs for elementary and middle school students are offered through EdOptions Academy, but different ages have different learning programs. For Kindergarten to Grade 5, the online program offers project-based learning through Edmentum Calvert Apprenticeship. Elementary students have a teacher who leads them through projects to achieve learning goals.
For students in grades six to eight, online learning is done through Edmentum Course program and is structured more like an in-person school. Students have four core courses and two elective courses that they can choose from. Each subject has a specialist teacher.
NW Online Learning Academy teachers are hired by Edmentum, but students meet regularly with Thief River Falls public school staff who serve as their “success coach”. Success Coaches are a bridge between students and distance educators, and hold regular check-ups with students and their families to ensure they are on track and provide any additional support a student needs.
For all online students, learning is primarily asynchronous, allowing students to work at their own pace, whenever they want.
“If a kid wants to do five math homework today because he really enjoys math, he can do five math homework a day,” said Danielle Schantz, NW Online Learning Academy online administrator. “If they want to work four really hard days and then take Friday, Saturday and Sunday off, they have that flexibility in their schedule.”
The flexibility also allows parents to schedule learning around the working day. If they are not able to help during regular school hours, a parent can instead sit with their child in the evening to complete schoolwork.
While students can work whenever they want, Schantz recommends that students have a routine for working on homework, as well as a designated workspace for completing classwork and homework.
Schantz found that the asynchronous online format did not provide NW Online Learning Academy students with opportunities for social interaction. Once a week, students and coaches meet for a ‘Zoom Fun’, where they play games and connect with each other.
“The families really enjoyed (and) the kids enjoyed seeing other kids. Some of them recognized each other last year because they were online last year, ”Schantz said.
Schantz oversees the online academy and mentors students in addition to his main job as an innovation coach at Challenger Elementary School. She and the other staff who serve as coaches do their training in addition to their normal teaching contract time. Meetings with students usually take place during a coach’s prep time, lunch, or after school.