Arizona students are taking online classes by the thousands, and with a change in state law, they have more options to do so.
Publically-funded online classes for kindergarten through high school students have been around since 1998, when the state approved the Technology Assisted Project-Based Instruction (TAPBI) Program, with two school districts and two charter. It grew to 14 - seven school districts and seven charters - and continued at that level until this school year.
In 2010, state lawmakers approved expansion of the program, now named Arizona Online Instruction schools. Today, 28 school districts have received approval for online programs, as well as at least 14 charter schools.
Together, more than 31,000 students are taking classes from these programs, mostly part-time. Enrollment was just half that four years ago, according to a report by the Arizona Auditor General's office.
Doug Barnard, director of the Mesa Distance Learning Program since 1999 and a program evaluator for the state, said he expects web-based education to continue growing.
"Forty-two entities offer distance learning in Arizona. Twenty more are in the hopper. Next month we'll be evaluating more. There's the potential for 62 online outfits in Arizona," Barnard said.
In the East Valley, two districts - Mesa and Tempe Union - were part of the original seven.
Now, Gilbert, Chandler and Higley unified school districts are getting online programs under way.
It appears to be a popular option for students.
More than 10,000 students took classes this year through Mesa's program. As long as they are Arizona students, they do not pay tuition since they are counted in the school district's enrollment or split enrollment with their home school district.
Out-of-state students do pay tuition.
When the state opened the door to more programs last year, Barnard said he was surprised by the number of school districts that joined. Many - like Mesa - offer classes mainly to their own students.
Scott Lymer is coordinator for Gilbert's Global Academy, a seventh- through 12th-grade online initiative that will begin accepting students this summer for fall enrollment.
The program will offer everything from honors and Advanced Placement courses to science, English and foreign language so a student could enroll full-time and receive a diploma completely through online efforts.
Currently, Gilbert students are taking about 1,100 classes online through a partnership with Mesa Distance Learning Program and the Mesa school district, Lymer said.
Lymer said Gilbert Unified School District hopes to launch its own program - the Global Academy - with about 100 students, but anticipates it will grow exponentially.
"We want to create a program kids feel excited about," he said.
"There are 36,000 students in Gilbert schools. Probably there are 10 percent to 20 percent of students in classrooms who would thrive in an online program. That's what we're trying to do. We don't expect 30,000 kids to take online, but 10 percent may give this a shot," eventually, Lymer said.
"From there, if a student feels it's a good match, we'll be there."
Chandler Unified began its online high school program last month, said Lorah Neville, the district's director of curriculum. Chandler Online has 26 students in the pilot program. They are all working on core classes.
"We'll see as it develops what demand is," Neville said.
Two classes - comprehensive health and art appreciation - are being offered. The students take the eight-week classes online with a teacher at the helm to answer questions or guide them as they study and read.
The district will expand the program in the future. It's in the process of finding a company with the right curriculum - or the ability to develop the curriculum - so a full complement of courses is available. They're doing that in combination with plans to offer an in-school/online hybrid program next year at Willis Junior High School.
Students will attend class at Willis, but get some of their instruction off the computer.
As for the future of the online program, "We want it to be as good if not better than what they would get in a brick and mortar building," Neville said.
Higley Unified School District has hired an online content provide and is in the
process of getting contracts signed and the program installed. Tempe Union High School District, one of the original seven, offers classes to students who reside in the district. About 40 classes are available.
Derek Hoffland, director of curriculum instruction and assessment for the Tempe district, said the district now offers about 40 classes online, with all of them aligning with state standards. "What most of the students are using online education for is to fill in holes where they can't work it into a schedule or to work ahead," he said.
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