Zoe Hendrickson expected to start this school year as a 7th grader at Central Middle School (CMS). Instead, she has spent school days since last September at home with her 6th grader sister, Ava, doing classwork on EP Online.
Zoe, 13, and Ava, 11, are not alone – 2,500 Eden Prairie students and their families elected not to return to school last fall due after a spring of distance learning last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even as the district’s secondary students join K-6 students back in the classroom March 22, Eden Prairie Schools is diving head first into the online education world with EP Online.
EP Online: Planning began in 2015
Planning groups began work in 2015 as part of the Designing Pathways initiative looking at long-range issues for Eden Prairie Schools, according to Dr. Stacie Stanley, associate superintendent of academics and innovation.
That effort resulted in the pursuit of a community desire to offer online opportunities for high school students, she said.
EP Online was born and went live for the 2018-19 school year offering 14 supplemental classes, including AP biology, math, science and physical education, that were open to EPHS students as well as anyone else in Minnesota.
Thanks to COVID, the platform got an unexpected boost last fall as hundreds of families opted for EP Online rather than the hybrid option – two days at school, three days at home.
Then, last fall, the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) approved the district’s application as a state approved online school.
Eden Prairie is one of several Minnesota school districts looking to enter the online education world.
According to a recent Minneapolis Star Tribune story, 38 districts already have received MDE approval and more than 40 others have begun or are considering beginning the process.
Even so, Stanley is not concerned that competition from those districts will negatively impact EP Online.
“Our model is uniquely different than others and we really believe that is what is going to attract students,” she said. “We never really planned on necessarily open enrolling a lot of students from the metro area.”
Instead, EP Online’s target market is students living 50 to 100 miles from Eden Prairie that don’t have access to the kinds of programs it offers.
“We know that there are many students who are in greater Minnesota who have limited resources to the level of … AP courses that we’re able to offer, the level of rigor we are able to offer, the level of synchronous learning that we are able to offer,” Stanley said. “They just don’t have the infrastructure to do that.”
EP Online plans to use its own teachers and previously developed curriculum to teach courses in 2021-22. The district will hire new teachers based on enrollment and content area needs. Some teachers may teach sections in the classroom and others online, Stanley said.
Other districts in Minnesota have used contracted providers. Some of them have been forced to shut down after complaints of poor quality instruction, according to the Star Tribune story.
Broad curriculum offerings
The district’s reputation for quality education, broad curriculum offerings – both live and recorded – will be a big draw, according to Director of EP Online and Digital Learning Raymond Diaz, Ed.D.
So will technology offered to each student, he said. Students in kindergarten through eighth grade will receive an iPad and students in grades 9-12 will receive a MacBook Air computer.
Students will be able to work independently, in pairs and in small groups using the Schoology online learning management platform, according to promotional information on the district’s website.
Students in grades K-5 will be live with their teacher each day, according to the website. Students in grades 6-12 will grow increasingly independent each year. Regular check-ins will be available to all students and families.
The program will operate under the same calendar as all Eden Prairie schools. Social workers, school psychologists, English as a Second Language, and Special Education teachers will be part of the staff.
Special Education students will receive services through an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) – as they would if they were attending school – with virtual instructional support, case manager support and provision of addition services such as physical therapy, provided in agreed upon locations.
Diaz said EP Online also offers something that is often missing from online learning – socialization opportunities. EP Online students will be able to participate in sports and other co-curricular activities.
EP Online by the numbers
Stanley expects 15 to 20 percent of the 2,500 students using EP Online this year – between 375 and 500 – to return to online learning in 2021-22.
“That speaks to the products we are able to offer,” she said. “People are finding that online learning is more flexible. Our kids are not sitting there in front of a computer all day long being lectured to. The flexibility and the high interest and the demanding curriculum are what is attracting them.”
The district projects 320 students to open enroll in EP Online from outside the district in the 2021-22 school year. Those projections increase each year by more than 50 percent in 2022-23 and 2023-24 and by another 65 percent in 2024-25, leveling off at 1,275 students.
The district came up with those numbers through research of enrollment trends at major conglomerate online schools, Stanley said.
Eden Prairie Schools’ overall enrollment has been declining slowly but steadily for several years. Current projections anticipate a loss of 280 students over the next four years.
If that prediction holds, the district would face a financial hit because the state’s funding formula is based on the number of students enrolled and attending school. Adding almost 1,200 new students in EP Online would offset that loss and more.
To spread the word, the program is being marketed through Facebook Live webinars and other social media outlets, Diaz said.
Diaz could not confirm the number of applications received so far for EP Online for the 2021-22 school year. “I can tell you that after webinars I get phone calls and people are looking into EP Online,” he said.
Going back to school
Zoe and Ava Hendrickson are finishing up their classes on EP Online this year and plan to head back to CMS next fall, according to their mom, Jen Hendrickson. While there have been struggles with missing friends and staying focused, she said, EP Online has served the family well.
“We have been so thankful for the ability to keep the girls home and protect our multigenerational household,” she said. “The teachers and staff have been amazing.”
But with their grandma fully vaccinated, going to back to school this fall is in the cards, she said.
“It’s something we are prepared to do and the girls are looking forward to that.”