Local families see online education options expand

Several years ago, Diana Blowers had to get creative to get her boys out of bed and off to school in the morning.

A rising senior at MTS Minnesota Connections Academy, Chase Blowers, of Anoka, often completes online lessons on his couch at home. Other favorite study spots are outside, when the weather is nice, and the library.
A rising senior at MTS Minnesota Connections Academy, Chase Blowers, of Anoka, often completes online lessons on his couch at home. Other favorite study spots are outside, when the weather is nice, and the library.Photo by Olivia Koester

She started freezing marbles and tossing them under her sons’ warm covers in order to get them up on their feet.

They weren’t motivated to go to school, so she became their cheerleader.

“I worked hard at that because my kids didn’t like going to school,” she said.

Displeased with their education in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, Blowers thought online education might be a solution, and the boys were on board.

“It’s scary to take your kids out of a regular school system,” Blowers said. “I thought that I might lose control of their education – it was exactly the opposite.”

In 2010, she enrolled Chase and Noah in MTS Minnesota Connections Academy, a free online public school for students in grades K-12.

Last year, Minnesota Connections Academy was one of 29 Minnesota Department of Education-approved online education providers in the state, and that number continues to grow.

New providers have grown 10 percent on average the last couple of years, according to Deborah Proctor, online and digital learning specialist with MDE. That state will add at least four more providers in August, she said.

Secondary students enjoy more options, but part-time and full-time courses are widely available throughout the state; in fact, “Keeping Pace,” an annual report about online education in the United States produced by the Evergreen Education Group, places Arizona, Minnesota and Utah just behind Florida, who leads the country in access to and participation in online education.

Approximately 14,700 Minnesota students enrolled in part-time and full-time online education programs in 2012-2013, be those charter school programs, multi-district programs, single-district programs or programs run by consortia of schools.

Throughout the country, single-district online programs “are the largest and fastest-growing segment of online and blended learning, as they have been for several years,” according to “Keeping Pace.”

Anoka-Hennepin maintains two such programs: Compass Online, for students who have been expelled, and StepAhead Online High School, for 9-11 grade students in 2014-2015, and 9-12 the following year. StepAhead Online High School was approved by MDE in August 2013, and by the end of the 2013-2014 school year, 26 ninth- and 10th-grade students attended the school full-time, according to Principal Jessica Lipa. A larger number attended part-time.

Most will return next year, and StepAhead will see between six and nine new full-time students, she said.

StepAhead accepts students from across Minnesota, but really targets students living within the Anoka-Hennepin boundaries who are seeking other options.

Planning for the school began several years ago when Anoka-Hennepin saw a number of students choosing online charter schools, rather than the district’s traditional brick-and-mortar schools, Lipa said.

“We were missing potentially hundreds of kids that could access education in a totally different manner,” she said.

The vast majority of coursework is submitted online, Lipa said, though StepAhead will offer its first hybrid class in 2014-2015 – cosmetology.

Working online prepares students for “the 21st-century workforce, (where) you need to be able to do everything and utilize technology to advance your work,” Lipa said.

In 2014-2015, six states will require students to take an online course before graduating from high school: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina and Virgina, according to “Keeping Pace.”

Lipa’s students seek online classes for every reason in the book, she said. “There is not a stereotypical online student.”

Flexibility is a big draw for families, Lipa and Minnesota Connections Academy Principal Melissa Gould agree.

Minnesota Connections Academy is the largest online charter school operating in Minnesota today. In the 10 years since Minnesota Connections Academy opened, the school has grown from 200 students to 1,750 students.

About half of the students live within the Twin Cities metro, and the rest live in rural Minnesota.

Like StepAhead, “there are no two students that are the same” at Minnesota Connections Academy, Gould said.

The school sees a number of students enroll for a year or so if they’ve had issues with bullying in their local schools. Others choose to go online because of the wide variety of course offerings, particularly students from rural Minnesota, according to Gould.

All students, even kindergartners, can take advantage of foreign language electives and other courses not often offered in more traditional settings.

Minnesota Connections Academy is K-12, but the bulk of its students are at the secondary level.

The school graduates 100-150 students annually, and 60 percent go on to post-secondary education, Gould said.

Chase will be among the 60 percent when he graduates in 2015 and goes on to pursue a degree in dental hygiene or nursing.

Last year, Chase stepped onto the Anoka Ramsey Community College campus for PSEO classes through Connections Academy, but he still enjoys his online classes, where he can study on his couch and still pass virtual notes to fellow classmates tuning in for live lessons.

Chase still has the opportunity to go on field trips and attend prom.

“Kids get a chance to still be kids,” Blowers said, but they can do so on their own time.

Noah left Minnesota Connections Academy last year to attend PACT Charter School in Ramsey as an eighth-grader. He was named to the honor roll and was presented with the Panther Award for his academic performance, character and ability to work well with others. Three years of online education boosted his test scores, his mom said.

The Blowers lives have changed completely in the last four years – frozen marbles are a thing of the past.

“My kids have really come to love education,” Blowers said. Going online, “it was the best thing ever in our life.”

Olivia Koester is at