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Internet offers alternative to local students Print
Written by Seth Mensing   
Wednesday, 14 May 2014
“It’s about serving kids and meeting kids where they’re at”

Technology is transforming education before students’ eyes, making opportunities possible in research and remote learning that were unheard of 20 years ago. Now the Internet is helping to fill a void for Gunnison Valley students in search of an alternative high school education and a diploma from an accredited school, where and when it suits them. And the idea seems to be catching on.


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Eryn Barker, who started a branch of the online GOAL Academy in Gunnison last year, said she had no idea how fast her branch of the local online school would grow. It began with 15 students spread between Montrose and Gunnison. Next year the former Portland, Oregon public schools teacher expects between 30 and 50 students, based on the interest she’s seen so far from prospective students.
GOAL is a free online high school that began five years ago as an alternative available to any high school-aged student in the state. The school operates under a charter through the Falcon School District in Colorado Springs, and in the first few years students struggled to make the grade, as it naturally attracted students who didn’t fit into the traditional high school mold.
Critics have derided the effort for the students, and subsequent funding, the online academies take from traditional public high schools and for the poor performance of their students on standardized tests. The Denver Post reported that 95 percent of GOAL’s students meet one or more of the 14 criteria for “at-risk” students and so GOAL serves a very select population.
Barker, who is now the lead teacher for the Gunnison/Lake City GOAL academy, admits the GOAL Academy isn’t for everyone. But for the people who need it, she says the flexibility and free-form approach to education can pay off in ways a traditional high school experience wouldn’t.
Barker says students have to show a mastery of coursework before being allowed to move on, meaning students can earn course credit in a couple of days, or even hours, or stay until they’re 21.
She also works with students who have a hard time fitting traditional high school classes into their schedule, including one student who is a dancer and another who has ambitions to be a professional skier.
So far, more than 3,500 students across Colorado have signed up for GOAL. Of her 15 students, Barker says some came to her feeling dissatisfied with the traditional high school after the alternative Gunnison Valley School closed in 2011.
Because GOAL is a public high school, Barker says it doesn’t turn away any student as long as they can use a computer, and the school has the apparatus to accommodate students at all levels of the educational spectrum, from gifted and talented to English Language Learners and those with some special needs.
According to Barker, the school attracts all types of students for the opportunities it provides them that even progressive public schools in urban areas cannot offer. Barker worked in the public schools in Portland, Oregon for 13 years before moving to Gunnison. Since the Spanish Immersion program she taught in Oregon wasn’t offered in the valley, she started to look at other options.
In GOAL she found an opportunity to help a group of students who might otherwise be pushed to the margins without the limitations of a brick and mortar building. Although Barker hopes to give GOAL a physical location in Gunnison sometime soon, right now she meets students at their homes or in a coffee shop or library, where they can talk about the lessons and assignments in person.
“Education can happen anywhere,” Barker says. “I’m frequently texting or talking with kids at 11 o’clock at night or over a waffle for breakfast.”
Part of what might make GOAL attractive is the flexibility to fit just about any “project” into the curriculum. According to Barker, students don’t have a set curriculum to follow but may come up with course work on their own that can be integrated into a class for credit.
“Students will bring the ideas and we will talk about how to plan it and make it happen,” Barker says, pointing to one student who rebuilt a car engine for class credit.
The school also allows students to play to their strengths, instead of becoming mired in material that may not serve them in a career or in post-secondary education. By using a system of block scheduling, students can change courses anytime they want, even as they struggle with the course material at the end of a semester. One student was able to drop a class she was struggling in and pick up a government course she was able to finish in six hours.
GOAL is also offering concurrent enrollment with Western State Colorado University and Barker is trying to expand her students’ opportunities for the future all the time. And instead of delivering her science lesson in a classroom, she’s taking her students to the Book Cliffs near the Colorado-Utah border for a lesson that will span a number of disciplines. Lessons like that follow the theme of experiential learning that Barker hopes to foster.
“For some kids a traditional school is a really good place. I don’t see myself as someone who wants to steal kids from the traditional public school. I want to work with the school district. But just like we don’t all have the same job, we all need a different education. For me, it’s not about the job or the money. It’s about serving kids and meeting kids where they’re at and being  successful.”
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