HOBART | The River Forest School Corp. has created a virtual online academy to retain students and attract new ones.
However, this online school is different from others across the state in that it will allow students to participate in extracurricular activities, including sports and any class on the school campus such as art, band or choir. Students also will be able to take state-mandated tests at the school campus. It is designed for students in grades seven through 12.
River Forest Superintendent Jim Rice said education reform has put pressure on the school corporation, causing leaders to think "outside the box."
He said the district is losing students to charter schools and private schools via vouchers. In addition, the school funding formula and changes in transfer tuition procedures have had a dramatic effect on the small school district. Rice said the district lost 51 students in the fall — which translates to a loss of about $350,000 to the school corporation. The current enrollment is 1,404 students.
The school already has enrolled five students who were considering dropping out of school and moving to an online program or pursuing a GED, school leaders said. Rice said the district also is targeting people who are homeschooling their children, and emailed about 125 people who currently homeschool their children.
"We don't want to lose these students," he said. "We don't want them to be dropouts. We want them to remain on the diploma track."
The virtual academy is also an outgrowth of the district's successful alternative school. It launched the alternative school six years ago in cooperation with the Lake Station Community Schools. Each school district has 15 students in the program working toward a high school diploma. Rice said River Forest's district has seen a 20 percent increase in the graduation rate as a result of the alternative school.
Technology fueling virtual education
"Technology is allowing us in education to do things we never thought were possible a few years ago," Rice said. "What we are doing at River Forest is taking advantage of today's technology by providing a virtual school program as an option for our 21st Century student."
The River Forest Virtual Academy is accepting applications from students within 30 miles of the school in Hobart. The school began the second semester Monday. Enrollment will be accepted through Feb. 1. Those students who live outside the River Forest school district will pay a $250 student service fee for a school year, or $125 per semester.
River Forest Junior/Senior High School Principal Shayne Snider said the only thing a family needs is a computer and Internet access. He said the district is taking advantage of cloud computing, something it began using three years ago. Cloud computing refers to computers being connected through the Internet, allowing the school district to increase capacity or add capabilities quickly without investing in new infrastructure or training new personnel.
Snider said the district also has used technology in its credit-recovery program, and it, too, has been successful and helped students gain the credits needed to graduate. "The credit recovery program was the next step. We also use the same A+ program that we use at the alternative school. The next natural progression was the virtual school," Snider said.
Snider, Rice and Bryan Daulton, director of technology, said the more they discussed the idea, the more excited they became about it. They said they initially thought about just offering the virtual academy to River Forest students, then decided it could increase enrollment if they reached out to other students.
Amanda and Chad Sams, of Crown Point, attended an informational session last week about the new River Forest Virtual Academy. The couple have a fifth- and seventh-grader whom they homeschool. The children were formerly in private school.
Amanda Sams she is interested in River Forest's virtual school. "I like the option of offering students extracurricular activities. I also like a student being able to retake a class," she said after the presentation Wednesday.