Anoka-Hennepin unveils full-time online high school

The inaugural school year is under way for Anoka-Hennepin School District 11’s StepAhead Online High School after state approval came through in August.

StepAhead is accepting ninth- and 10th-grade students this year. Eleventh-graders will be able to enroll for the 2014-2015 school year and in 2016, StepAhead will graduate its first class of seniors.

“We have just a handful of kids right now, but more people are inquiring daily,” said Jessica Lipa, director of the new high school.

The school is available to students statewide, but targets those living in the Anoka-Hennepin boundaries and not attending one of the district’s five traditional high schools – more than 2,000 students, according to School Board Chairperson Tom Heidemann.

“We’d like to make sure that … we can meet the needs of learners who have alternative learning styles and may find this to be more engaging than sitting in a classroom,” Heidemann said after receiving updates on StepAhead at a Sept. 23 school board meeting.

As soon as the high school was approved by the Minnesota Department of Education, promotional materials went out to the families of students who are homeschooled, attend charter schools and enroll in other online high schools, among others.

Although the school will primarily serve students looking for a full-time online education, students at any of the traditional high schools can supplement their daily schedules with online classes, Lipa said.

In the past, online classes have not been a popular option in District 11.

“Students attending our high schools are already being served very well, which is why when, in the past two years, when we’ve had online courses, very few of them took them because they like being in our high schools,” Associate Superintendent of High Schools Jeff McGonigal said at the board meeting.

Online high school is not for everyone, said Kay Villella, assistant director of communication and public relations for the district. “We’re trying to get across that it’s not an easy choice to make,” she said.

The school’s website, www.stepaheadhs.org, includes the following eight questions to assess whether or not online high school might be the right option for you:

1. Do you struggle with the rigidness of the typical school day?

2. Are you comfortable with technology?

3. Do you like to learn at your own pace – whether that’s faster or slower than others?

4. Are you proficient in reading?

5. Do you prefer to study at different times every day?

6. Are you highly motivated?

7. Are you self-disciplined and organized?

8. Would you like to arrange classes to suit your schedule?

Kjarra Wymore attends Blaine High School and participates in the Center for Engineering Mathematics and Science program. With a packed schedule, Wymore opted to take a health class online this past summer, between her junior and senior years.

Wymore would not enroll in a full-time online high school because she would miss the social aspects traditional high school offers, she said.

StepAhead students do have the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities at the traditional high schools, but it would be odd not having lunch with friends regularly, Wymore said.

“You have the forums online, but that’s not, generally speaking, getting to know your classmates,” she said.

Still, she appreciates the online option. If she was just starting high school, she would consider taking language and history classes online, but not science classes – they are too hands-on, Wymore said.

For her health class, it was convenient to work at her own pace, she said.

Additionally, she found that she needed to be very self-motivated, which will serve her well in college where she will need that same drive, according to Wymore.

StepAhead is working to provide concurrent enrollment at local community colleges for students. This would offer not only academic benefits, but also financial ones. Students could shave hundreds to thousands of dollars off their college tuition by earning credit in high school, Lipa said.

The district and the MetroNorth Chamber of Commerce are discussing a possible partnership to promote early college and career readiness, Superintendent Dennis Carlson said at the board meeting.

For more information or to enroll, visit www.stepaheadhs.org.

Olivia Koester is at olivia.koester@ecm-inc.com

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