Three small northern Michigan school districts are teaming up next year to form a new cyber school. Suttons Bay, Manistee and Crawford AuSable all had their own online programs before joining forces for the Great Lakes K12 Virtual School. The consortium will serve all of the northern Lower Peninsula but it will have to compete with two statewide cyber schools.
For a number of years, the Suttons Bay Public School District has been making big changes: a revamped elementary curriculum, physically moving the middle school, and eliminating school busing in favor of public transit.
The changes were forced by declining student enrollment and a shrinking budget. The district did something else too. It found a way to grow.
“We’ve redefined ourselves. We haven’t limited ourselves to just the students here on campus who are in our district,” says Superintendent Mike Murray.
Competing With Other Cyber Schools
A few years back Suttons Bay launched an online program, recruiting a large number of dropouts. And it has grown. This coming school year, this online program is actually projected to serve slightly more students than the 219 you’ll find physically walking the halls of Suttons Bay High School. Most of the online students live in the southern Michigan county of Jackson, but state funding for these kids comes to Suttons Bay.
As the district builds its program, lawmakers in Lansing have also expanded the capacity of two competitors. These are two statewide cyber charter schools. These schools have no bricks-n-mortar existence. They’re growing in influence and in ability to recruit.
“And we realized, looking at the future, that they had the resources and the power to put all the rest us small districts out of business in the virtual world, unless we do something differently,” says Murray.
So Suttons Bay will keep its current online program but starting in the fall it hopes to enroll around 300 additional students in a new virtual school. One run in conjunction with two other northern Michigan public school districts, Manistee and Crawford AuSable.
“By joining forces we then become a force to be reckoned with,” says Murray.
The new school will serve the three districts’ combined school-of-choice region – essentially the entire northern Lower Peninsula.
Superintendent Joe Powers of Crawford AuSable Schools says bigger numbers will mean more resources and, he believes, a better program for students. The virtual school has its own principal and other support staff and teachers; teachers who know both a specific subject area, like math, and who also specialize in online learning techniques.
“So that we have a mathematics teacher,” says Powers, “that can focus on creating daily blogs, interactive chat rooms [and] real world practical applications in the mathematics area.”
Powers says online instructors for math and other subject areas don’t have to also try to create curriculum for a traditional classroom.
Powers isn’t convinced the Great Lakes K12 Virtual School will be a big money maker for Grayling High School and the rest of his traditional school district of about 1,700 students. He says traditional schooling has become too “one size fits all.” He believes in the power of online education for certain students.
Manistee Area Public Schools Chief John Chandler agrees.
“You’ll have high-end gifted and talented students who are looking for an individual pace that they can accelerate at,” says Chandler. “You’ll have at-risk students, who are looking for an individualized pace so that they can slow down a little bit. You’ll have students who, socially, they just don’t feel comfortable at a school and that discomfort prevents them from being successful academically.”
Chandler even tells the story of a local beekeeping family that spends part of the winter in Florida. The online program allows their student to remain in Manistee Schools even while out of state.
Chandler says online programs have meant some new revenue for the Manistee schools. But he doesn’t want people to think virtual learning will be some kind of “cash cow” for public schools.
“I think people get into it for various reasons but the only real reason to be a proponent of online education is because philosophically you believe that it’s going to be the best solution for a certain segment of the student population,” says Chandler. “That’s exactly why I’m in it and that’s exactly why we’re in this consortium with Suttons Bay and Grayling.”
Back in Suttons Bay, Mike Murray sees it at as a win-win: a new revenue stream and a complete re-thinking of what it means to be a public school district.