Nevada Community School District describes what success, financing of online learning academy might look like

Phillip Sitter
Ames Tribune

Remote learning is not entirely new for the Nevada Community School District, but a K-12 online academy would be, and a district leader described how that will be judged as successful — and paid for.

Nevada's school board last week approved for the district to move forward with its plan to have Edmentum EdOptions offer an online academy in the fall for K-12 students.

Edmentum already offers virtual course options to the district's high school students. The district is also seeking state approval in order to offer open enrollment access to remote learners from outside the district.

Kody Asmus, Nevada's associate superintendent for school improvement, said the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the district to expand Edmentum's program from high school to include middle school students — which in Nevada includes fifth-graders — for those who chose a remote learning option in the past year.

Kindergarten through fourth-grade students in remote learning this year were taught by elementary school teachers assigned to an online class.

The district as a whole remained fully in-person last year, Asmus said.

More:Nevada district agrees to pursue online academy for next school year; 'We would just love to keep our kids with us'

What will Nevada consider a success for its online academy?

Before the pandemic, Asmus said there were typically 20 to 35 high school students on an alternative program path who had a majority of their classes be virtual. He said there may be a 10% or 15% increase from that number from two years ago for the future online academy, but it's difficult to know for sure.

"I'm getting a feeling that a high percentage of students that are currently online are going to transition back to in-person learning next year," Asmus said.

"However, if there's still students and families that want to pursue the online option, we want to be empathetic to them and provide them that learning modality, and that's why we have been pushing and looking at this virtual academy opportunity," he said.

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However many students enroll in Nevada's program next year, Asmus said the success of it will be judged on data including assessment results, course progress, grades and the number of students passing, in addition to whether families think the platform is working and is beneficial for their children.

In a couple of years, health concerns may no longer drive almost anyone's decisions about remote learning, but, on the other hand, Asmus said "this might forever change the way school learning and public school offerings are" — although maybe not for every district.

As of May 21, the Iowa Department of Education listed 21 online programs that had been approved — though a few of those had been approved before the pandemic to one degree or another, such as in Des Moines, where a virtual campus for high school students was approved in August 2019 but middle school students were added earlier this month.

Post-beginning of the pandemic, Iowa City, Marshalltown, Sioux City and Waterloo are among the districts that have had online programs approved for K-12 or preK-12 students.

How will Nevada pay for a K-12 online academy?

Nevada's previous online program offerings were budgeted through the district's at-risk program, Asmus said.

Enrollment in the future online academy would not cost families anything, but he said the agreement with Edmentum would cost the district $1,600 per student per semester for students in grades K-5, $1,500 per student per semester for students in grades 6-8 and no additional cost for high school students. 

Asmus said the district is looking to utilize Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds to pay for the expanded online academy. 

Those emergency federal pandemic aid funds will have a deadline in the coming years, and once it's reached, "We'll adjust then and go back to the drawing board and assess where things are, just like we do annually with regular curriculum programs," Asmus said.

Phillip Sitter covers education for the Ames Tribune, including Iowa State University and PreK-12 schools in Ames and elsewhere in Story County. Phillip can be reached via email at psitter@gannett.com. He is on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.