Walla Walla connects with online school

Any student can elect to take one or more classes from Greenways Academy.

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WALLA WALLA - Walla Walla Public Schools has partnered with a St. Louis-based online learning firm to offer online courses to local students.

The district began offering classes through Greenways Academy at the start of this school year, following an initial trial run with some students over the summer. Any student - even those not in Walla Walla schools - can elect to take one or more classes to supplement coursework, to make up classes, or simply as an alternative to traditional schooling.

Online learning has spread in popularity throughout the state the last several years, prompting the Legislature to enact laws related to the practice and regulation of online schools. The law, which began as SB 5410, helped launch a new Digital Learning Department at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2009. School boards throughout the state were also asked to draft online learning policies by Aug. 31 of last year.

The Digital Learning Department offers parents, students and school districts resources, such as an overview of the new law and a list of state-approved online learning programs and their partnership districts. Several online schools work with more than one district, while some districts run their own online schools.

Greenways Academy is an accredited online school that is in the process of seeking state approval through OSPI, said Jerry Boomer, Greenways president. Greenways does not currently appear in the list of state-approved online school programs.

Partnerships like the one between Walla Walla Public Schools and Greenways Academy have helped fuel the movement of online learning, in part because they provide free online learning.

Although just a few months in, Greenways currently has close to 250 students enrolled through Walla Walla High School, said Kirk Jameson, assistant principal at Wa-Hi. Jameson oversees the district's partnership with Greenways.

Jameson said the number includes several students from nearby private schools as well as students from other districts. The program is offered primarily to high school students.

Boomer said his program might benefit private school students whose parents pay taxes toward public education. Online schools are one way for such families to get a share of their public education dollars without leaving their private school. A similar case can be made for home-schooling families.

Online learning is not new, although the partnership of online schools with public districts is newer.

Dennis DeBroek, who teaches computer and media technology at Wa-Hi, has been able to enroll private school students in his classes for a few years through the Internet. DeBroek was an early advocate for online learning locally and helped develop the current partnership with Greenways.

"I saw this opportunity, that there's a lot of different ways for kids to learn," he said.

DeBroek, who works daily with students who seek to master computers and programing, said he believes students will continue to be drawn to online learning in bigger numbers.

That more students are turning to online learning is clear; the district lost dozens of students to other online school programs last school year.

But Jameson said online learning is not for every student.

"Just as no classroom is perfect for every kid, online learning is not right for every student out there," he said.

Online schools are geared for a variety of students - those needing remedial courses or more flexible schedules; students with medical complications that keep them out of school; or ambitious students who want to supplement their schedules with additional electives. Students who enroll in Greenways through Walla Walla Public Schools can take one class, or a full course load.

"We always have to come back to what's the best thing for kids," Jameson said.

Classes are taught remotely by teachers hired by Greenways. Boomer said his staff includes retired teachers and teachers who left education but still sought to teach from time to time. Boomer said teachers are highly qualified and certified, and the program has several accreditations.

Jameson said district administrators felt confident about choosing Greenways in part because of its accreditation, as well as its alignment with core standards and state curriculum.

Greenways' plans in Walla Walla include launching a learning center that will be housed at the YMCA, where enrolled students can access computers to do course work. There will also be fee-based tutoring services available.

Like traditional classroom instruction, there are guidelines to help ensure student success in the online realm.

Jameson said there may be concerns over cheating or plagiarism, just as there are in traditional classrooms. And enrollment figures change almost daily, as they do at Wa-Hi.

Parents are asked to participate and monitor student work, and dialogue with online teachers is encouraged.

"You can't just let your son or daughter go online and tell you they're learning," Jameson said.

Jameson noted Walla Walla's experience with online learning is still virtually new, having launched quietly over the summer and more fully in the fall. Whether enrollment will continue to grow, and if students will eventually seek diplomas from Greenways remains to be seen.

"It is a different dynamic," Jameson said.

On the Net:

For more information on Greenways Academy of Washington, visit greenwaysacademy.com/washington.

For more information on the new Digital Learning Department of OSPI, visit digitallearning.k12.wa.us.

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