Step into a classroom during sixth period at Wolford Public School and there are 11 students taking nine courses online.

About six years ago, the small, rural district — with an enrollment of 42 students — lacked course offerings, and Wolford Superintendent Larry Zavada said he longed for more academic rigor and accountability.

The district was limited due to finances, and good teachers were hard to come by, according to Zavada. So, he tried something new: online classes.

Now, students in Wolford are taking an array of online courses through the North Dakota Center for Distance Education, which offers 330 courses, including Advanced Placement, credit-recovery courses and a variety of electives.

Online classes have made a difference in some rural schools in North Dakota, including Zavada's, where more than half the students are taking an online class through the center.

There are millions of K-12 students in the United States taking online courses, though it's hard to determine an exact number. An Education Week article in June noted one estimate from the Evergreen Education Group, a consultancy organization, which said 2.7 million students took about 4.5 million supplemental online courses during the 2014-15 school year.

In North Dakota, the number of course enrollments at the Center for Distance Education has increased considerably, which can be tied to when the state Legislature began subsidizing the cost of courses for North Dakota students. There were students enrolled in 2,173 courses in 2011, compared to 7,530 this year, according to data from the center.

NDCDE Enrollment

Some rural school districts find help through the center because they lack financial resources to offer certain classes, such as foreign languages and science. Other districts simply can't find certified classroom instructors, which was the case in Medina this year.

But schools utilizing the center are not all rural. Matthew Lonn, the center's director of statewide programs, said students are enrolled from 170 of the state's approximately 180 districts. The district with the highest enrollment is Fargo Public Schools, according to Lonn, who said most of these students are taking credit-recovery courses.

The North Dakota Center for Distance Education was created in 1935 by the North Dakota Legislature as a correspondence learning program offered to those struggling to complete their studies in rural towns.

Funding for the center is provided by an appropriation from the Legislature every two years, as well as through tuition charged to districts and students. The center offers courses to students in grades 6-12 in North Dakota, other states and overseas.

Ninety percent of enrollments this year are in-state, up greatly from about 10 years ago when out-of-state enrollments accounted for 70 percent of students, according to Lonn.

Filling in

Finding teachers is the biggest challenge for Medina Public School, according to Brian Christopherson, superintendent.

Last school year, his science teacher retired and applications for her replacement came up short. He finally found a qualified teacher, but she's still in college and won't be able to start until spring.

His 162-student district started utilizing the North Dakota Center for Distance Education during the 2015-16 school year, as a way to offer more elective courses to seniors. Christopherson decided to expand those online choices this school year with science and business courses.

"I think that every school wants to have that teacher in-house, wants the students to be in front of a teacher. If you can't find one, you have to go to Plan B, and that was our Plan B to get through the fall semester," he said. "So far, it's worked well."

In the spring, the new science teacher will begin her student teaching alongside the former science teacher, who has agreed to come back for the second semester. 

"One of the challenges smaller schools have is we can't offer the number of electives that Class A schools offer," he said. "I feel like if we wouldn't offer any online courses, any of these unique electives, then we're holding our kids back."

'Work at your own pace'

Before Zavada, who is in his 14th year as superintendent at Wolford Public School, started offering online classes to students six years ago, he said he and other school officials tried the classes.

"Before we say we're going to to have students do it, we have to experience it ourselves," he said.

After the school officials' trial run, they approved of the classes and began offering them to students. Since then, Zavada said the response he's gotten from students and teachers about the online courses has been "overwhelmingly positive."

Two Wolford students have been able to take classes online while working full-time jobs.

Lynnsey Slaughbaugh, 18, a recent Wolford graduate, said she's held a full-time job since her sophomore year at a salon and coffee shop. 

"I definitely enjoyed taking the online courses just because you get to work at your own pace, and I like to work ahead," said Slaughbaugh, who started taking online classes in seventh grade. "There were so many different areas that you could choose from. If you're interested about something, you could take a class and learn from it."

She took three AP classes, including two English classes and a speech course, which saved her money in college. This year, she's taking online courses through the University of North Dakota.

Her cousin, Kaitlin Slaubaugh, 16, also has taken seven online courses in Wolford. She's taken seven classes, including photography, nursing, business and computer fundamentals, and said online classes helped her decide she wants to study nursing in college.

"Being able to take classes that I'm interested in and that I want to learn about has really helped," she said. "With this nursing course, I'm able to see more into this field and (if) I really want to go into it after high school."

Communication is key

Shannon Dillman, who has been teaching since 1994, is a full-time instructor for the North Dakota Center for Distance Education. Her first job was at the center.

Dillman, who now has 110 students, teaches AP English language and composition, and a hodgepodge of other courses, including public speaking, journalism and mythology. 

Dillman, who lives in Bismarck, each day runs a virtual classroom, similar to a chat room, where students can ask questions. Texting is the students' preferred method of communication, so each day her phone will ding with questions from students, she said. Teachers also can utilize Facetime and Skype to interact with their students.

Building a relationship with these students is important, Dillman said.

"If you could hear me talk about my students, my kids, you can see that I know them," she said.

Online teachers at the center have worked to improve how they interact with students. Jill Daignault, a part-time online social studies instructor and assistant principal at the center, said, for the past three years, instructors at the center have been working on a "teacher process," which essentially outlines standard practices.

"Our completion rates went up, our failure rates went down significantly, and it was just really great to see," she said of the improvements resulting from that process.

(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)

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Education and Health Reporter