Beginning in 2021, high school students may have an online learning option at Brainerd Public Schools.

Not to be confused with distance learning — which some students chose for this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic — Brainerd Online School would offer online options for both core and elective classes for ninth through 12th grade students. It would not be a full online high school but a supplemental program designed to offer more options for students in an ever-changing educational environment. Students would be able to take a combination of both in-person and online courses, and the district may develop blended courses that would require both in-person and online participation. Staffing for the online courses would depend on enrollment.

School board members approved the plan Monday, Oct. 26, sending it to the Minnesota Department of Education for review.

Tim Murtha, director of teaching and learning, and Christina Lundgren, technology integrationist and online learning coordinator, outlined the plan for board members Monday night.

Conversations for an online option began in 2019, Lundgren said, as the district saw high school students leaving Brainerd in favor of online classes for various reasons, including:

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  • A desire to experience an online learning environment, sometimes in preparation for post-secondary education.

  • Diverse scheduling needs, including students in athletic programs outside the Brainerd lakes area.

  • Students wanting to take classes not provided in Brainerd due to low enrollment, like Advanced Placement Calculus or Video Game Design.

  • Students whose needs are not being met in the physical building.

“We believe that the courses that we offer at the high school are high quality courses and that providing another layer of access to those courses would benefit our students,” Lundgren said.

Online courses will teach the same standards as those in the in-person high school but will be able to be accessed by students throughout the state.

With various other online learning options across the state, Lundgren said what will set Brainerd’s apart is an emphasis on personal connection. Teachers, she said, could be available for in-person contact if needed.

The mission statement of Brainerd Online School is to provide “high-quality learning opportunities with personal connection.”

The district would use a three phase system to implement the new program, including information sessions, a maintenance period and assessment/evaluation.

Students, parents, administrators, teachers and board members will have the opportunity to attend in-person information sessions to learn about the program’s mission statement before classes start. Teachers interested in teaching online courses will attend an informational presentation outlining the school’s mission and expectations of course design. They will also complete a summer orientation program to gain professional development and guidance on course development.

During the first year of implementation, the maintenance phase will consist of teacher teams and the online school leadership team meeting regularly to review the school’s mission and vision statements and determine if they are being met. Professional development opportunities will be provided to specifically address community- and relationship-building in an online school, the incorporation of digital citizenship and productivity skills in online courses, and modeling and building a growth mindset in students. The maintenance work will be ongoing throughout the first three years of the online school.

The last phase — assessment and evaluation — will involve reviewing survey data from parents, students and teachers to determine how effectively the mission statement is incorporated into the school’s work. Along with survey data, the leadership team will review graduation rates, standardized test scores, attendance, achievement gap reduction, online teacher retention, student understanding of course standards and program growth.

The school’s online leadership team will include Lundgren, Brainerd High School Principal Andrea Rusk, guidance counselor Rachelle Street, special education teacher Jolene Parks and two teacher representatives yet to be determined.

Murtha said the online program will start out small but could turn into a revenue-generating mechanism down the road. Online summer courses could be offered in the future as well.

By approving the plan Monday, the board authorized it to be sent to the education department for a 90-day review period, during which Lundgren anticipates having back-and-forth conversations with officials, likely making tweaks to the program outline. If all goes as planned, online courses could start as early as fall 2021.

Board members Charles Black Lance and Tom Haglin said the idea is both exciting and very timely.



THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.