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Virtual education gives options to students at St. Croix Central

St. Croix Central has begun offering virtual education to residents in its district as an alternative to traditional public school classes. Enrollment for 2011-12 is expected to more than double compared to last year. Here, Michael Nyseth, a 12-year-old student of the SCC virtual education program last year, is shown on his first day at home using the Calvert curriculum offered at no cost by the SCC program.

Truant: one who is absent without permission. The term was widely applied to youth who were seen out and about in the community during school hours.

In this day and age, that is not always the case.

Thanks in large part to computers, students now have the option to take classes from home - and St. Croix Central is helping them do just that.

SCC implemented virtual education and homeschooling programs last year: two full-time students and eight part-time students chose that option.

For the 2011-12 school year, SCC plans to more than double that amount, including elementary students as well. At the present time, the program is open to only SCC district residents.

There are actually two parts to the SCC program: those who are supplementing their public school education with online classes and those who are doing an alternate curriculum from an alternate setting.

Madeline Larson, 17, is an example of the former.

The SCC senior said she enrolled in the program because she wanted to graduate early, and because she wanted to take some classes that were not offered in the typical SCC curriculum.

"I had taken all the art classes that my school had to offer my junior year, so I took a virtual class called Art Appreciation," explained Larson. By May 2011, she needed only three more credits to graduate, so she took three summer classes. Her goal is to attend the University of Wisconsin-River Falls next year "as a senior in high school and freshman in college." Eventually she wants to be an art professor.

Stephani Owens, virtual education coordinator for SCC, said that the program not only offers the students extra classes, but better prepares them for learning.

"The students also have a wonderful opportunity to learn what being an online student is all about, since most of them will take classes like these in the future," she said.

Larson said there are pros and cons to virtual education courses. She likes that she can learn at her own pace.

"Say you are awake at two in the morning and bored out of your mind, you can go online and complete an assignment," said Larson. "If you are sick or just having a bad day, you don't have to add homework on top of it."

On the flip side, she concedes that being responsible is paramount.

"I am working and taking two classes this time, and it is not as easy to do as it was during the school year because it is just so tempting to go out and have fun with friends after a long nine-hour day," she admitted. "Discipline is definitely something that you need to be an online student."

Since the SCC virtual education is still in its infancy, Larson suggested that they offer a wide variety of classes.

"I think that there should be more option in each field of interest like art, music, science and history - I feel like we just have the bare minimum," she said.

"I would encourage anyone to try at least one class because it really is an empowering feat."

The second type of student would refer to those who are doing an alternative curriculum from an alternative setting, or more commonly referred to as homeschooling.

Although homeschooling has gained more exposure in the last few decades, it is still considered an "alternative" way to learn. Traditionally, families who homeschool don't fraternize with the public school system and opt out of the district. However, SCC is seeking to change that school of thought.

Through the SCC homeschool program, the school district is reaching out to families - without insisting they set foot in the classroom.

"The benefit for the school is that we are receiving state dollars for these kids who were not previously enrolled," said Owens. "The benefits for the students in this situation are that the school provides them with their curriculum at no cost and is also there to support the families in any area they may need."

Michael Nyseth, 12, has been homeschooled for two years. The family said there were several factors that went into opting out of public school.

"We faced issues with bullying, keeping him challenged in the classroom and administration communication issues," said Michelle Nyseth, Michael's mom.

They previously used various programs such as Alpha Omega, Rosetta Stone and other online resources at first. Then they were approached by Owens about the SCC program.

"We decided to try the program with Michael because he likes to be challenged academically. He has a strong desire to learn and we agreed that Calvert had a well-structured and challenging program," Michelle said.

"I like Calvert because it challenges me to work hard and be independent," agreed Michael. "I have been able to do activities that I would not have been able to do at SCC, like behind the scenes at Sea Life and the Minnesota Zoo. Calvert also has a kid-friendly blog that you can chat with other homeschool students."

Michael's typical school day starts between 8-8:30 a.m. With the Calvert program, they have art, technology and core subjects.

"We try to break subjects down into half hour to one hour learning sessions, similar to SCC schedule," said Michelle. "Often times we can move through the curriculum at a faster pace, so our children are not in the classroom for the length of a full school day."

The Nyseths also have a daughter, Isabella, 10, who did not use SCC's virtual schooling last year.

Because the SCC program is still relatively new, all the details about what the students are allowed access to are still being worked out.

According to Glenn Webb, principal of SCC high school, part-time virtual students are still inside the school building itself and therefore more likely to participate in school organizations, such as band, choir or sports.

"There are some full-time virtual education students who don't attend the school at all, but they are still considered students of SCC and can participate in organizations," said Webb. "We haven't had any full-time students who have wanted to participate yet; it's all so new, we are still writing policies."

The Nyseth family doesn't use any of the school facilities with this program, yet.

"We are still trying to figure out what resources are available to use through SCC," said Michelle. She said she does interact with other homeschool families for recreation and has even utilized the Hammond/Roberts Senior Center for practicing public speaking skills in giving reports.

"Last fall, Michael and Isabella did large reports on Kennedy Space Center after a family vacation there," she recalled. "The experience was so beneficial to my children, as the wonderful people at the Senior Center shared their memories on how the space program changed throughout the years."

With the projected number of 2011-12 virtual education students increasing, Owens said the program is helping virtual education gain acceptance in the community.

"I feel the growth of the program is mainly due to word of mouth promotion between students and parents as well," said Owens. "Our program offerings have increased, so that too is probably part of the reason for the growth."

Nyseth said that the free SCC program has helped their family tremendously.

"Our kids are happier and find school more rewarding and meaningful," she said.