St. Paul district aims to establish online school

Before the pandemic bounced kids into distance learning last spring, St. Paul Public Schools had begun work to create its own online school, and now the district hopes to bring those plans to fruition.

The school board will be asked Monday night to back plans for a virtual school that would have its own principal, staff and programming, and would begin this fall by serving ninth- through 11th-graders.

First, the district must apply for state approval of the online operation, and during a briefing last week, the board seemed receptive to giving its go-ahead.

Board member Jessica Kopp said she liked the idea of a student looking over a catalog of district offerings, hitting upon the online school and thinking, “Oh, that’s cool. That fits my schedule. That fits my learning style.”

“I am excited for us to be a part of this,” she said.

Many students across the state have struggled after being thrust into distance learning during the pandemic. For years, however, there has been a market for full-time online instruction among independent learners with outside interests as well as kids frustrated with brick-and-mortar schools for various reasons — bullying among them.

St. Paul’s bid to establish the SPPS Online School would put the state’s second-largest district in a position to compete with virtual operations like Falcon View Connections Academy, which is tied to the Wabasha-Kellogg School District yet draws students — and the state revenue they generate — from areas outside that district’s boundaries.

This year, Falcon View and Minnesota Connections Academy, which is part of the same national network of online schools, have seen enrollment rise significantly.

SPPS Online School does not yet have a budget or an enrollment goal or cap. Initially, it is expected to draw students from St. Paul and its adjoining districts, said Hans Ott, director of the district’s Office of Digital and Alternative Education, which was established about a year ago with the online school in mind.

He said limiting the geographic area to St. Paul and its neighboring school systems would allow it to provide uninterrupted education to students who move from the city to an adjoining district, plus keep the launch more manageable.

The district would expand the program to high school seniors in 2022-23, he said. Seniors are expected to be excluded in the first year so the district can focus, instead, on building a firm foundation for future graduates.

Most students are expected to use iPads, as they do in distance learning, but the district also is considering issuing laptops to those who are working toward careers related to engineering and technology.

Superintendent Joe Gothard said the project recognizes that many students desire real-world skills that may require more flexibility in their daily schedules. He said the school also could open possibilities for partnerships with businesses that could provide after-hours jobs to students knowing the kids have the ability to keep pace with their school work.

“I think there’s some really exciting opportunities for us,” he said.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109

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