For some, e-learning is the ideal solution

As the clock ticks down to 8:30 a.m., 10 faces appear on teacher Kim Hill’s screen – a constellation of online learners. Most are in Rochester, but some are scattered across Minnesota.

Hill greets her students as she would in person: “Hello, darlings. I’m so happy to see you all,” she said. “You make my day.”

These students are members of Online Chargers, a new school of 330 K-12 students in the Rochester School District. Instead of showing up to a physical classroom every day, they turn on their computers for real-time learning. Everything from math and reading to music and physical education is part of their day.

Kim Hill uses a desktop camera to teach math to 5th graders at RPS Online School at Overland Elementary School on October 4 in Rochester, Minnesota.

Ken Klotzbach MPR News

Online school began as a pandemic-related experiment – ​​an outgrowth of distance learning that began in March 2020.

That model wasn’t perfect, but it did reveal that some kids do very well with online learning, Chargers principal Brandon Macrafic said.

“A lot of students and families are looking for — they’re looking for that good learning environment, where they can be successful — some students who maybe had difficulty in school in person,” he said.

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Rochester’s online program is now in its second year. It is open to students from all over Minnesota. The district even signed an agreement with the Winona School District this summer to take its students online.

Macrafic says that for the district, moving to an online learning program has also helped offset the loss of some 600 students during the pandemic to homeschooling, private school, or college. other districts.

“We’re looking to differentiate ourselves from this remote learning experience, to make the most of it, but then to build on that,” he said.

Students and their families choose online school for a host of reasons, Macrafic said.

Some are still looking for extra protection against COVID. Some concentrate better at home. Some are less anxious in a virtual classroom.

Online learning is very different than it was in March 2020, Macrafic said. There’s more of a built-in community, with clubs, a student council — all the trappings of in-person learning.

For 10-year-old Lauren Klein, all these extra activities have made learning online really fun. Klein, who returned to in-person learning for 5th grade, served as student council president.

She said she didn’t feel like she missed out on much socializing.

“During breaks you can join a separate meeting and talk to your friends, also during lunch breaks,” she said.
And getting ready in the morning was also easier. “You don’t have to pack a backpack and say, ‘Oh, I forgot my backpack,'” she said. “They encourage you to get ready — to dress to feel more fulfilled during the day, instead of just sitting around in your pajamas.”

Real-time learning

Another feature of Rochester’s online school is that learning happens in real time, Macrafic said.

This is one of the main reasons teacher Kim Hill decided to give up teaching in person.

“If it had been asynchronous – press a button on a computer to send lessons, kids send it, you fix it and send it back – that’s not my jam.”

Her jam, Hill said, is the relationships — and she was surprised how easy they are to develop even with a screen between her and her students.

“You know, every day, [students know] “I go to see my teacher, I can ask my teacher questions, I can give my opinion.” It really helps build that relationship,” she said.

Izzy Beckman listens to instructions at home

Izzy Becker listens to instructions at home from RPS Online School teacher Kim Hill on Oct. 4 in Rochester, Minnesota.

Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

For Hill, online learning is not without its challenges. The most important thing is to make sure that all of your children have strong enough internet access to participate.

And she sometimes misses being able to lean over a student and help him with an assignment. Thanks to investments from the school district, new technologies allow her to edit or work on documents with the children while they do homework, but it’s not quite the same, she said. declared.

Still, she said it was very different from the chaos of online learning at the start of the pandemic.

“We’ve really found our groove and we’re a fully functional public school where we can take kids from anywhere in the state of Minnesota,” she said.

Better suited to family

Across town, Hill’s 5th grader Izzy Becker and her siblings Spenser and Sydney are finishing up lunch between classes.

Getting to know the other students was easy, Izzy said.

“My favorite thing about online learning is that it’s easier to get emails from friends,” Izzy said.

Spenser Levi listens to instructions at home

Spenser Levi listens to lessons at home during RPS Online School Oct. 4 in Rochester, Minnesota.

Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

A smaller class size is also a big plus, said Spenser, a third-grader. Last year, one of Spenser’s classmates spent an extended period in Iraq, giving Spenser a taste of a different way of life.

“We discovered that they had different money from ours. And I think there is such a thing as the $1,000 bill, which I don’t think is the thing here,” Spenser said.

For Sydney’s first year student, there isn’t enough social time.

“I can’t hang out with my friends when we’re not meeting,” she said. She misses a friend she met online in kindergarten and she said another best friend will be going to school in person this year.

But for Izzy, Spenser and Sydney’s mother, Miri Levi, online learning is probably here to stay for their family.

At first, e-learning was a way to protect her children from COVID-19 before vaccines became available, she said.

Now it’s just a better fit for their family.

“It gave each of the children the opportunity to progress at their own pace. And they could engage in new types of projects. And we had a lot more extra time with them,” she said.

A few added bonuses: Her kids have learned a lot of organizational skills, like managing their own schedules, showing up to class meetings on time, and making their own lunches.

“They spend one-on-one time with their teacher almost every week, in very small group classes where the teacher isn’t distracted by a bunch of other kids in the class,” Levi said. “It’s something you would never get in person,” she said.

For teacher Kim Hill, who began her career for decades, the shift to online learning has reinvigorated her passion for teaching. It’s not for everyone, she says. But for some students, it’s just.

“I found a niche, I found a place where I can really help,” she said. “Because I’m doing something for kids who needed it and needed to be seen.”

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