Michele Carver, 17, a Durango student who frequently travels for dance competitions, has found a perfect school to accommodate her trips: Southwest Colorado eSchool, where classes are online, but she can visit a local student center for tutoring or to find camaraderie.
“This is my third year, and it’s been a good experience,” Carver said. “I can get my stuff done quickly and teachers are quick to respond when you have questions. The work’s right in there (her computer), and you can do it anytime you need to.”
The attraction for Carver, who will graduate in May, and her parents, Larry and Alisa Carver, is one many families at Southwest Colorado eSchool find appealing, said Mike Freeburn, Southwest Colorado eSchool principal: “They can organize school around life rather organizing life around school.”
Southwest Colorado eSchool, which serves grades six through 12, got its start eight years ago when the superintendents for regional school districts from Pagosa Springs to Dove Creek decided to join forces to provide a local online school option.
“They didn’t want to simply have online options out of Denver without any personal connections,” Freeburn said.
Freeburn said students generally must spend 35 hours a week on school work to keep up, but online schooling frees them to study beyond the normal 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day.
“We’re not locked into a schedule like a brick-and-mortar school,” he said. “They have work to do during the week, and it’s really about getting their work done, but what day they do it and what part of the day doesn’t matter as much.”
Freeburn said students find their own patterns – some concentrate on one subject a day, others spend time on each subject during the day much like the pace in a normal school.
Freeing students from the clock is ideal for athletes who can use the middle part of the day to train while concentrating on their studies in the mornings and the evenings.
Carver said initially she struggled with the motivation to hit the books.
“Procrastination can be a problem, but eventually you realize you have to get the work done. Once I figured out how to get organized, I got a lot more work done each day,” she said.
Laura Pinkney said she found Southwest Colorado eSchool after her son, Levi, 13, struggled to focus in traditional classrooms.
“He has teachers he can check in with and a hub he can visit once a week,” she said. “He can study away from home. The teachers keep him accountable, and they talk online with emails, and I get a copy of the emails, too.”
Levi, a seventh-grader, said he enjoys the freedom to control his schedule.
“You can pick a path that you want to follow and concentrate on certain things during the week,” he said.
From students pursuing their passions to those excelling or struggling in traditional classrooms, online schools are finding an expanding niche in Southwest Colorado.
Colorado Connections Academy, which works in partnership with Durango School District 9-R, has seen its student count grow from 531 students in fall 2017-18 to 641 students in fall 2018-19.
Southwest Colorado eSchool, the online provider for San Juan Board of Cooperative Education, expects to see its second semester enrollment jump from 50 students in fall 2018-19 to 60 to 65 students in the spring semester. In fall 2015, the school had 26 students.
Goal High School, which has been in Durango for three years, jumped from 34 Durango students in fall 2017-18 to 86 Durango students in fall 2018-19. Goal High School also has 97 students in Pagosa Springs and 84 in Cortez.
All three of the online schools are free, public schools, and all three recognize online learning can be isolating. All three offer drop-in centers in Durango that offer in-person tutoring, and all three conduct field trips and group activities.
Colorado Connections Academy, which serves kindergartners through 12th-graders, offers 20 activities and clubs students can participate in as well as live joint sessions online.
Goal High Academy touts seven trips a year students can take that offer class credits.
Ryan Mathews, assistant principal at Goal High School’s Four Corners office in Durango, said students recently returned from a five-day trip to Moab that required preparatory study of the area’s history, environment and economy. The trips typically require reports from students upon completion that summarize what they learned. Goal Academy is preparing a trip to southern Arizona and Mexico in February.
Southwest Colorado eSchool offers one major outing a semester and Friday movie nights. Students can also participate weekly in the Mountain Middle School Options program that allows home-schooled and online students the opportunity to participate in hands-on learning projects in a social atmosphere as well as its drop-in center for tutoring in Bodo Industrial Park.
Aarron Trudeau, 19, said he plans to graduate in nine months of study at Goal High School after struggling at several traditional high schools in Southwest Colorado.
“There’s a great support team here, teachers, pod-leaders (tutors) and you can rely on other students,” he said. “You can move faster than in a normal class.”
Goal High concentrates on developing individual, needs-based plans for each student, Mathews said.
“We try to meet the students where they are,” she said.
Before students start classes with Goal High School, whose student population is listed at 93 percent at-risk of not graduating, each must attend an orientation where they learn about the increased need for individual accountability and self-advocacy required in online classes.
Goal High School uses a blended model of instruction that combines online classrooms with frequent site visits to its drop-in center at 2800 Main Ave.
Besides creating success plans and study plans, Mathews said students also develop a site plan with their academic advisers at the drop-in center. The site plans help ensure students visit the drop-in center frequently enough to avoid procrastinating and falling behind.
“Some students need to come in every day and treat it like a regular school,” Mathews said. “Forty to 50 percent of our students are seniors. Some may take a couple of years to graduate. Our biggest goal is to develop productive members of society.”
Like Southwest Colorado eSchool, expanding the clock is important for many Goal High students who are also holding down jobs.
The school tries to celebrate successes, even small ones, with students who are struggling, because many students are also working to overcome unstable and difficult family environments, Mathews said.
“It’s all about respect with these kids. If you show them respect, they will respect you. We say: ‘Regardless of what you’ve been through in life, you own your future.’”