Growing number of Minnesota school districts launch online schools

The pandemic changed the way students learned, forcing families to adjust to distance learning. For some, it was a success, and now a growing number of school districts in Minnesota are launching online schools.

“I think that many families that had not ever thought about virtual education, learning from a distance, [they] saw it, liked it and I think that’s what really started the ball rolling in the St. Paul district, ” said Jeffrey Bush, the principal of St. Paul Public Schools’ new online school.

SPPS will offer an online school in the fall for those in grades nine through 12. Up to 450 students will be able to enroll for the first year of the program. Students will have remote classes with teachers, but they’ll also have the ability to complete coursework on their own time.

“Online can be a much quieter atmosphere for students to learn,” Bush said. “I think from a student perspective, to maybe have the ability to have a job and still go to school and earn some money is a big thing. I think some of them wanted to get away from that drama that can sometimes be in high school.”

The district initially looked at creating an online school to help students learn during bad weather days. When the pandemic hit, SPPS submitted a formal application to the state.

“I think it’s a win-win for everybody,” Bush said. “Minnesota is a very competitive landscape in terms of virtual education. There’s a number of schools that have been very well established for a number of years already, so it’s not new — I think the pandemic drew attention to it.”

According to the Minnesota Department of Education, the first online learning programs in the state launched about 25 years ago. During the 2020-21 school year, there were 38 state-approved programs.

That number will significantly increase in the fall. A spokesperson for the department told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that 10 of those programs will be expanding and another 26 new providers have been approved. The department is also still reviewing another 15 applications.

The SPPS Online School will be available for students in the district, as well as those who live elsewhere in the state. Bush said launching an online school will hopefully help improve enrollment.

“It’s about keeping your students and keeping them in your local school and providing them with an opportunity they maybe they would have somewhere else,” he said. “We definitely want to keep St. Paul students in St. Paul.”

In 2016, Eden Prairie Schools launched an online learning program.

“We had a limited number of courses we were offering and students would take EP online courses and graduate from our high school,” said Dr. Raymond Diaz, director of EP Online. “Now, EP Online stands alone as a K-12 school where students will graduate from EP online.”

He explained they were already working on expanding to a fully online school when the pandemic hit. The district launched its state-approved online school in September.

“At the end of this year in EP Online, we had about 2,500 students,” Diaz said. “We have students all over. … We have students well above St. Cloud.”

Diaz said over the last year they’ve learned the importance of being inventive and flexible, as well as listening to families. He expects they will be adding courses as the program continues.

“We have a paradigm shift now everyone has had the opportunity to experience online [learning],” Diaz said. “They’ve had an opportunity to have that experience and we’re going to find many families want to stay there for the rest of their career.”

To see a list of state-approved programs, click here.