Southwest Colorado eSchool and the Emerging Online Education Evolution in Durango

I’m an ardent proponent for educational choice. I believe in supporting and promoting diverse educational venues where parents and students can opt for excellence via educational pathways that best meet the unique needs of each individual student. In my experience, ‘one size fits all’ rarely benefits ‘all’.

Durango is fortunate to have developed a variety of viable and effective educational modalities over the past decade – from our local public school district 9R to our public charter school options, to private schools. My own three children benefited enormously from educational ‘choice’ – two graduated from Animas High School, an innovative, rigorous, project-based public charter school, and the third will graduate from 9-R’s Durango High School, our community’s most traditional high school, with the largest student body and a full range of athletic opportunities.

Another option that’s growing in popularity not only in Durango, but throughout the nation, is online schooling, also called digital learning or eSchooling. According to the Evergreen Education Group, an advisory and market research firm focusing on eLearning, attendance at full-time, online public schools increased 58% between the 2009/2010 school year and the 2013/2014 school year. That is equivalent to 315,000 full-time, online students. In the 2013/14 school year, the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics reported that 2.7 million students chose online/blended learning. That represents an 80% increase from the 2009/10 school year. If the $1 billion (plus) post-secondary, professional development e-Learning market is any indication, Americans are enthusiastically embracing this style of learning.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Mike Freeburn, Principal at Southwest Colorado eSchool (eSchool) to learn more about the structure, offerings and philosophy of this local online eSchool program. Freeburn is a dedicated educator with over 24 years of experience in classroom and administrative roles, mostly with 9R. His priority is a top quality education for each student – one that supports and capitalizes on, rather than competes with, students’ personal interests, talents, and passions.

What it is:

The San Juan Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) established Durango’s not-for-profit eSchool, available to students from Durango and surrounding areas, six years ago. eSchool is a multi-district, public, online school, authorized and accredited by the Colorado Department of Education. It receives state education dollars that are allocated per student (per pupil revenue, or PPR), as do traditional brick and mortar schools, although the state mandated PPR for online schools is slightly less than for traditional schools. While eSchool is free for 9R students to attend, each student must provide his/her own computer, hi-speed internet access, headphones and a microphone. Upon successful completion of the coursework, students will receive a high school diploma.

Who attends:

eSchool serves grades 6-12 for nine school districts in the San Juan region, including Durango and La Plata County. It received state funding for 29 students in the fall of 2015 with that number growing to 46 students in the fall of 2016. Total students participating in the eSchool courses offered, (including full-time, part-time, and students enrolled in supplemental courses) was 69 students in the fall of 2015 growing to 315 students in the fall of 2016. The large growth was due to an increase in courses offerings, as well as a rise in demand for this style of learning.

Though enrollment is now open to any student in the specified geographic region, eSchool was initially established to provide equitable learning opportunities for regional students as well as serve students with extenuating circumstances. Whether due to an injury, expulsion, illness, or other extenuating social or physical circumstances, any student unable to attend a brick and mortar school still has the legal right to receive educational services from the school district. Although the makeup of the student body and the reasons students enroll in eSchool has become much more diverse, serving the needs of potentially marginalized students remains a primary guiding principle of Southwest Colorado eSchool.

Benefits of eSchool:

One of the top benefits of an online classroom is the opportunity to create a program customized to the individual student. Lessons are released on a weekly basis, and students are required to log in for about an hour each day, Monday to Friday, for each class. Beyond that requirement, students work independently and at their own pace. Some may fly through the work with accuracy and comprehension. Others who might benefit from more interaction and in-person teaching time are required to attend one of eSchool’s learning centers (in Durango or Dolores) a certain number of hours per week. Some students choose to work in the learning centers even when they’re not required to do so.

With the advantage of not being limited to a single geographic location or time frame, eSchool can offer a greater variety of college-focused and career-focused courses, including elective options not available at brick and mortar schools. Further, eSchool’s partnership with Acellus (see below) provides access to hundreds of “asynchronous” on-line courses (no live teacher), providing credit recovery opportunities as well as for flexible, educational support for regional students. Such access is rarely available in a traditional school.

Freeburn speaks enthusiastically about online schooling’s capacity to meet the educational needs of exceptional students. For young people with extreme focus and talent in a particular area – whether it be athletics, academics, or the arts – eSchool can provide flexibility of schedule and more stimulating challenges. Freeburn even coordinates with high level coaches – of various sports – to better serve the community of superior athlete students who compete at levels that require significant travel to far-away destinations, making it impossible for them to be present in typical classroom settings – for example, competitive equestrian  events, cycling and skiing.

Development and Expansion of eSchool: When Freeburn took over as eSchool principal last year, he and his team expanded the variety of learning options through the school.

  • The first major change was to offer courses through the nationally recognized Acellus Learning System, backed by the International Academy of Science. Acellus instead utilizes video recordings of experienced teachers presenting the coursework, which allows students to join any course at any time during the year. Although Acellus courses can be completed independently by students, Freeburn believes that eSchool student learning is improved when supported by the presence and involvement of encouraging, qualified, and certified teachers.
  • Test preparation (ACT, SAT, PSAT) courses were also added through Freeburn has further developed his customized/personalized modal of education by negotiating with Durango Academic Coaching to offer ACT/SAT test prep courses to area students at a discounted rate.
  • Numerous course options were also added through Colorado Digital Learning Solutions (CDLS, the State sponsored supplemental on-line course provider).

With the quality of education eSchool is offering, Freeburn anticipates ongoing growth in enrollment. He has, since making the move from a traditional school environment to eSchool, become even more convinced of the benefits of the latter. In a traditional school setting, a significant amount of time is spent waiting for class to begin, settling a class down, and moving from class to class. Freeburn estimates that only 50 percent of the day can be devoted to actual learning in that scenario. Online students, in contrast, are immersed in the learning process as soon as they’ve logged into a course.

In summary, an online education is not the right choice for all students, but can be an excellent alternative for exceptional students who need to be challenged with courses that aren’t offered at other local schools due to more rigid time, curricula, and/or faculty constraints. It’s also an excellent option for students struggling socially or academically, to learn at their own pace in a supportive environment. In addition, it guarantees a good education to students who are physically unable to attend a brick and mortar school.  Durango is fortunate to have various options to meet the needs of our students and eSchool is evolving to be a preferred alternative for many.

One Comment

  • Heather Otter

    Having been a teacher in both public and private organizations, a corporate training and development manager, and a parent who appreciates and expects quality choices in education for my son as he journeys to life beyond school, I am refreshed by reading Melissa’s section on education. Mike Freeburn is an example of a true leader in education. I’ve witnessed the passion he brings to making online education real and relevant for students and families. Online education comes in many forms and flavors. I think the model San Juan BOCES and Mike created with SWCO eSchool demonstrates true commitment to our local needs while adhering to high performance standards. Mountain Middle School, lead by Shane Voss, is another example of what Ken Robinson imparts in his talks. It’s all about creating a safe social and physical environment for kids to learn in and then getting on with the critical student centered work of preparing them to succeed in the present and in a future that we cannot totally know or understand yet. When I transitioned from teaching kids in school to teaching adults in the workplace I realized how much K-12 experience impacts the learning mindset. The social and financial investments we commit to culture, accountability, trust, rigor, and care for fellow humans in our schools today absolutely and directly influences the learning organization of the future.

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