According to a recent survey from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, a third of the districts that run alternative schools and programs for public school students at risk of educational failure were unable to enroll new students during the 2007-08 school year because of staffing or space limitations.

Here are three of the ways I’ve been thinking about that online learning could enable districts to enroll more students in alternative schools and programs without requiring an increase in staffing or space:

First, districts could allow students in alternative schools and programs to set their own schedules. For example, in Wichita Public Schools’ alternative program, student attendance is not required during set hours each day as in traditional brick-and-mortar schools. The district requires students to complete at least a half credit each month and attend the program site for at least 15 hours per week to remain enrolled, but students may decide when and how to meet these requirements. Program sites are generally open on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and students may drop in at any time during these hours to work on their coursework. This flexibility allows students to work around their employment and family schedules. The constant turnover enables Wichita Public Schools to enroll more students in its alternative program than there is staffing or space available because student attendance is staggered throughout the week.

Second, districts could allow students with access to a computer and an Internet connection at home or a public library, for example, to divide their learning time between the alternative school or program site, where an in-person teacher would be available, and home or another location with an Internet connection. By allowing students to work on their coursework part of the time on site and part of the time off site, districts could nearly double the number of students enrolled in alternative schools and programs without increasing staffing or space.

Third, districts could use a combination of online and in-person teachers in alternative schools and programs. Online teachers, which are available through online curriculum providers, could serve as subject matter experts while in-person teachers could serve as mentors and coaches. Additionally, in-person teachers would be responsible for making sure students stayed on task, grading written work, and monitoring student progress. Under this set up, students would use online teachers for most of their academic inquiries so it would no longer be necessary for the alternative school or program site to maintain a low student-teacher ratio. Also, by using online teachers as subject matter experts, districts would not need to staff alternative schools or program sites with highly qualified teachers, which could help mitigate costs.

What are some of the ways your district has used online learning to solve problems stemming from staffing or space limitations?


  • Katherine Mackey
    Katherine Mackey