PAYNESVILLE -- Like many school districts of greater Minnesota, the Paynesville Area School District struggles to retain student numbers and ultimately its state funding linked to enrollment.
But as the district combats these troubles and a lopsided state-funding formula, Paynesville Area Public Schools found a tech-savvy way to offer more course options to high school students and keep more of them on-campus.
Earlier this school year, the district began offering a program of Internet courses that provides more subjects and prevents more students from leaving district grounds to study elsewhere.
As a result, school districts like Paynesville can offer expanded education without losing their enrollment-related state funding.
"The nice thing is, when kids go to Post-Secondary Enrollment Options, we lose the funding. But with this program, we retain that funding," said Todd Burlingame, superintendent for Paynesville Area Public Schools. " ... So it's a good thing, kind of a win-win for our kids."
The Internet program Paynesville is now offering, called INFINITY: Minnesota's Digital Academy, was created by a handful of Minnesota school districts in 2007 and offers 47 entirely online courses for students of member districts. INFINITY utilizes the Desire2Learn Learning Environment, an Internet program used by many colleges and universities for online courses.
According to the program Web site, INFINITY is designed for high school students looking for flexible course scheduling, advanced placement courses, credit recovery or additional coursework.
More than 40 school districts are members of INFINITY. Besides Paynesville, two other local districts -- Willmar and New London-Spicer -- also offer the program.
Lorie Floura, principal for Paynesville High School, said her school has 17 juniors and seniors using the program during its first semester. All are taking one course to fill an open slot in their seven-subject class load for the semester, Floura said.
The district has received only good feedback about the program from participating students and their parents, Floura said.
"Some kids really like it because of the independence that's involved -- the timing, the flexibility -- those parts of it," Floura said. "And they just like that venue to do work. ... They just enjoy that medium."
As a student participates, Floura said, the high school is notified about the student's progress only when the course is completed. But if a student is struggling, the online course's instructor can call the high school's designated contact so that a district teacher can intervene with the student.
Prior to the availability of online courses like INFINITY, many students have participated in Post-Secondary Enrollment Options to access more educational opportunities. The program allows high-school students to take college courses for credit at no cost to the student. But when a student enrolls in Post-Secondary Enrollment Options, the student's school district loses a portion of its state funding to the new education provider.
Kevin Acquard, principal for New London-Spicer High School, said his district thinks INFINITY is one of the most beneficial options for providing off-campus education.
"Most of the other online learning options actually take a portion of our (state) aid," Acquard said. "So I guess cost-effectiveness plus having one provider rather than five different ones just seemed like the direction to go in. And obviously a lot of schools have done this."
District membership in INFINITY costs $3,000 annually. But the program "pays for itself," Floura said, when 10 or more district students enroll in the program -- a semester-long online course costs the district $350 per student. The membership and course fees are small compared to losing thousands of dollars in state funding to another education provider, Floura said.
NLS has been an INFINITY member since 2007, but started offering courses this year. Acquard said his school has three students taking at least one course this semester and expects similar numbers next semester. NLS also has some teachers interested in teaching an online course for the program, he said. INFINITY uses instructors from its member districts for teaching the courses.
But just because the learning option is available doesn't mean it's right for every student, Acquard said. Like he's seen in other alternative learning options, some students struggle in different learning environments and do not succeed in the educational opportunity.
"It is kind of the wave of the future and these kids are used to it," Acquard said. "But the caution is it's not for everybody, just like PSEO, just like all these other online programs."