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District looks online to help advanced students

As it looks for ways to expand its offerings for high-achieving students Independent School District 196 is turning to the Internet to ensure new classes are available to the largest possible audience.

The District 196 School Board heard proposals Monday for two new programs for gifted and talented students. One is a world cultures class for sixth graders at Dakota Hills Middle School, but it's the other that could shake up the way classes are offered in the district. The sixth grade American studies class proposed Monday would blend half-day seminars and site visits from teachers with online instruction. Students would gather in computer labs at their school to go over instructional materials.

The class would be open to students identified as high achievers within the district's gifted and talented population.

According to teaching and learning director Steve Troen, the online component of the class would allow the district to reach a large number of students without adding a lot of new staff.

"Let's say we had five students at one school, two at another school.... By offering blended online we're able to offer that opportunity to all students creatively and hopefully efficiently too," Troen said. "We're looking at this as a creative way to meet the needs of highly gifted students."

Online education is becoming increasingly common in Minnesota schools as budgets shrink and improving technology expands what is possible. There are charter schools in the state that conduct classes entirely or primarily online.

Some of the technology the district will use for the proposed class is already in place and used for other purposes. Troen said if the American studies class goes well the district could consider expanding its online offerings.

"We'll monitor closely how it goes this year," Troen said. "By no means are we saying our current school program should be replaced by online programs or are not adequate, but this is a creative way to meet the needs of a targeted group of students."

The district has made efforts in recent years to improve its offerings for students identified as gifted and talented. It assembled a task force about five years ago to study offerings in the district and recommend changes. The district has already added some new courses. In January the district approved an advanced writing and literature course for seventh and eighth grade students at Rosemount Middle School.