Three years ago, reduced state funding meant the Southwest Plains Regional Service Center in Sublette had to significantly cut back its community learning center program, reducing the number of statewide centers from 10 to two.
Regardless, due to expansive online services, the organization is still making an impact.
The SWPRSC was among seven schools and educational institutions honored last year by the online learning platform Fuel Education. By using the platform to offer nontraditional graduation programs and expanding course options to smaller, rural schools, the SWPRSC was recognized for offering alternatives and second chances to dropouts, at-risk students and schools with limited resources.
The SWPRSC has offered Fuel Education to Kansas districts at a discount rate for five years and currently provides the service to hundreds of students in 24 high schools and learning centers in the state, said Bill Losey, SWPRSC principal.
Fuel Education’s online curriculum can act as a substitute for an unfilled position, an alternative for students interested in courses their school does not offer or flexible credit recovery options for students who fail key classes, Losey said. Most schools using Fuel Education through the organization are southwest Kansas schools in class 3A or smaller, he said.
If high schools cannot fill a math or science position, as he said many struggle to do, students can instead take the online class, graded by an off-site teacher with a Kansas teaching license, during the day while supervised by a paraprofessional, Losey said. A full-time teacher is always preferable, but the platform can be an alternative to smaller schools struggling with vacancies, he said.
If a student wants to take a language or a specialized, career-focused class, they can take and earn credit for it online. If a student needs to retake a class, online options allow them to move through the program quickly and have access to a different format and instructor than they knew before, Losey said.
“It’s next to impossible to get foreign language teachers in small, rural schools. And through FuelEd, the kids can take Spanish, French, Chinese, Latin, German…” Losey said.
Area high schools in Cimarron, Dighton, Holcomb, Lakin, Leoti, Satanta, Montezuma, Sublette and Ulysses all use the program through the SWPRSC, Losey said.
Holcomb High School Principal Jason Johnson said that while enrollment in the platform had taken a dip this semester due to student work release, several students had used the online curriculum to take physics and upper level math classes not offered at the school. Other students have shown interest in using it to take nursing or forensic science, he said. By next year, the school will open up the platform to all sophomores, juniors and seniors and expects about 60 to 70 to take advantage of the options, he said.
When students are given the chance to explore an elective or class they are passionate about, their engagement levels are much higher, Johnson said. It gives students more options while easing staffing concerns for smaller schools, he said. By working with the SWPRSC, Holcomb High School can offer “as many classes as Garden City High School,” even with a smaller faculty, he said.
Beyond that, SWPRSC has used the program to give students a way to finish high school years after dropping out. The cooperative's community learning centers in Dodge City and Scott City are open to anyone in the state over 18 and help about 30 students a year earn their high school diplomas, he said.
“These are young people that, for whatever reason, dropped out and then life hit them in the face and they realized they need that little piece of paper to better themselves. That’s real rewarding to see those young adults walk across the stage and get a diploma,” Losey said.
The SWPRSC integrated Fuel Education into the existing program several years ago in an effort to offer a more “rigorous” and “credible” curriculum, said Melissa Jasnoch, program coordinator. It offers more elective classes and core classes at several difficulty levels, and the accessible courses are comparable to online college classes, she said.
There are other online platforms similar to Fuel Education, but Losey said he wants all Kansas school districts working with the SWPRSC to know Fuel Education at a discount is an option. Giving students the resources to explore careers in high school better prepares them for post-secondary success, he said. Instead of dropping out of a four-year university with significant debt, they can be more aware of their options.
“To live the American Dream and have a middle-class life, there has to be some post-secondary success…” Losey said. “It helps communication with their family about ‘This is what I’m good at. This is what I’m interested in. This is one way to get there.’”
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