Why a rural Alaska district turned to online learning

By Tegan Hanlon, Alaska Dispatch News
October 11th, 2016

Shrinking district enrollment prompted school leaders to turn to online learning to keep up class offerings

online learning

Tim Shumway teaches high school classes from the second floor of his Anchorage home, where he has three computer screens set up on his desk so he can talk to his students, who sit in three separate classrooms, all more than 100 miles away.

As part of the district’s high school schedule, Shumway holds world literature class for four weeks; then his students take a two-week break, which they spend in hands-on elective courses, like coding and welding, before returning to the core classes for another four-week cycle.

The untraditional schedule and increased reliance on technology are part of the Copper River School District’s strategy to counter declining enrollment, said school district Superintendent Tamara Van Wyhe.

In the past decade, the district’s student population has shrunk by about 22 percent, and the district has closed three of its six brick-and-mortar schools, according to state data. But at the same time, Van Wyhe said, the district has drastically increased its number of online classes and, last year, overhauled its high school schedule.

It’s trying to do more with less — grappling with the effects of shrinking enrollment, like many other rural school districts.

“We’re trying to provide all those same opportunities in a different way,” Shumway said from his tidy home office. “It’s all about will. It’s about looking at this as an opportunity to innovate rather than as a challenge that is going to destroy us.”

Next page: The district’s unique online learning school schedule

Add your opinion to the discussion.