THIEF RIVER FALLS – While the return to in-person instruction was good news for many parents and students, Thief River Falls Public Schools Superintendent Donita Stepan realized some families might appreciate other learning options amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

This year, Thief River Falls Public Schools is offering students a completely online option, called NW Online Learning Academy. The program is available for students in kindergarten through eighth grade at Thief River Falls Public Schools and surrounding school districts.

“It's mostly COVID-related, so we have flexibility with our families who are nervous about coming into the school, which is why we worked really hard to make this happen in a very short period of time,” said Stepan.

The online learning academy has 32 students, with four from outside of the district.

According to Stepan, offering online learning options is also part of the district’s strategic plan to better personalize learning experiences to student needs while allowing them to stay in the school district.

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“As we think about all of the options that kids have these days to find a school – there’s homeschooling, charter schools, online schools, private schools, Catholic schools, just an array of options for kids to try different things – we want to make sure that kids can stay part of Thief River Falls Public Schools,” said Stepan. “Offering this online learning academy will be an option for our families to stay here in Thief River Falls.”

Thief River Falls Public Schools is offering the program under a provisional license through the Minnesota Department of Education for this school year to provide an online option during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but Stepan hopes to be fully certified to offer online learning as an option in the future.

The programs for elementary school students and middle school students are provided through EdOptions Academy, but the different ages have different programs for learning. For kindergarten through fifth grade, the online program offers project-based learning through Edmentum’s Calvert Learning. Elementary students have one teacher who leads them through projects to reach learning goals.

For students in grades six through eight, online learning is through Edmentum’s Courseware program, and is structured more like in-person school. Students have four core classes and two elective classes they get to choose. Each subject has a specialized teacher.

The teachers for NW Online Learning Academy are hired by Edmentum, but students regularly meet with Thief River Falls Public Schools staff members who serve as their “success coach.” Success coaches are a bridge between students and the remote teachers, and hold regular check-ins with students and their families to ensure they are on track and provide any extra support a student needs.

For all online students, learning is mostly asynchronous, allowing students to work at their own pace, when they want.

“If a child wants to do five math assignments today because they really like math, they can do five math assignments in a day,” said Danielle Schantz, NW Online Learning Academy online administrator. “If they want to work four days really hard and then take Friday, Saturday and Sunday off, they have that flexibility in their schedule.”

The flexibility also allows parents to schedule learning around the workday. If they are not able to help during typical school hours, a parent can instead sit down with their child in the evening to complete school work.

While students can work whenever they want, Schantz does recommend that students have a routine for working on schoolwork, as well as a designated workspace for completing classwork and homework.

Schantz found that the online, asynchronous format does not provide NW Online Learning Academy students with opportunities for social interaction, so as a success coach, she has created ways for the online students to connect with each other. Once a week, students and coaches meet for a “fun Zoom,” where they play games and connect with each other.

“The families really appreciated it (and) the kids enjoyed getting to see other kids. Some of them recognized each other from last year because they were online last year,” said Schantz.

Schantz oversees the online academy and coaches students on top of her main job as innovation coach at Challenger Elementary School. She and the other staff members who serve as coaches are doing their coaching on top of their normal teaching contract time. Meetings with students are usually during a coach’s prep time, lunch or after school.