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As Minnesota school districts snap back from in-person to virtual learning, demand has risen at schools that specialized in online instruction before the pandemic.

Minnesota Connections Academy (MNCA) jumped from 2,800 students in the spring to 4,700 this fall, according to the school's principal, forcing it to close enrollment and begin putting kids on a waiting list. Three schools that are part of the national network, K12, also have shown strong growth overall.

Supporters point to the steady nature of established operations, and in the case of MNCA, the addition of new teachers who discovered a liking for distance learning during last spring's state shutdown, as factors in the surge.

Fifty-five teachers have been hired since the start of the school year, when Minnesota Connections Academy was projected to have about 3,400 students. The new positions put the school's student-to-teacher ratio at 38:1, still under the preferred ratio of 40:1, Melissa Gould, the school's principal, said this week.

She credited part of the enrollment growth to families growing weary of district changes between hybrid and distance-learning models, as well as sudden moves to quarantine as COVID-19 cases arise.

"They just wanted the consistency," Gould said.

Minnesota now has 39 state-approved online providers. Total enrollment numbers are not expected to be available until February, but the state Department of Education has seen increased interest among groups seeking to enter the market. Six applications now are under review, officials say.

St. Paul Public Schools, which has seen enrollment drop at a pace greater than anticipated, wants to have its Virtual Learning School approved as a long-term option for students in St. Paul and elsewhere.

The state's second-largest district could compete, then, with online providers like Falcon View Connections Academy. Now in its second year, Falcon View is part of the same virtual school network as MNCA, yet different in that it has ties to a traditional school district, Wabasha-Kellogg.

As a cyber charter school, Minnesota Connections Academy has drawn students from across the state and also has found itself trying to overcome a problem plaguing many online providers: lagging math scores.

This year, MNCA has begun using an assessment tool, Renaissance Star 360, that gauges where students are at in math and reading at the start of the year and helps monitor progress on a weekly basis, Gould said. Tests also will be given in the middle of the year in February and at the end of the year, too.

"It's invaluable data," Gould said. "If you see a student struggling, you know which standard to remediate."

Connections Academy is part of the global learning company Pearson, which has drawn the attention of Parents for St. Paul Schools, a group formed a year ago to call for a moratorium on new charter schools or expansions of existing schools in the city. Clayton Howatt, one of the group's leaders, said it was "deeply concerning" that state tax dollars are used to boost profits elsewhere "as opposed to staying here in [Minnesota] to be invested in our students."

A smoother experience?

The three schools operating as part of the national K12 network — Minnesota Virtual Academy, Insight School of Minnesota and IQ Academy Minnesota — now teach nearly 4,200 students, up 55% from a year ago, according to communications associate AJ Blomberg, who says families want success "without disruption."

Falcon View had 23 students on Oct. 1, 2019, its first year of operations, and reported having 465 students on Oct. 1 this year — with openings still available, Principal Anne Wasmund said this week.

Austinna (Tinna) Gonzalez-Zaldivar, a sophomore at Falcon View, researched online school options after becoming frustrated with last spring's shift into distance learning at Woodbury High School. Teachers piled on the assignments, she said, perhaps thinking kids had time on their hands, but without providing in-depth help.

She is independent, she said, busy with Girl Scouts and other obligations, so she relishes the freedom to tackle coursework when she can. She is shy, too, she said, and appreciated having a Falcon View biology teacher reach out to her two weeks before school to make sure she knew her way around the school's learning platform.

"They have everything more organized, in my opinion," she said. "There's no way you can be lost anymore."

Her grades are pretty good, too, she said, all A's with the exception of a B- in math. She said that it would be nice to be in an actual classroom for in-person math support but that Falcon View does offer live lessons she can drop into virtually, and it has helped her gain a better understanding of what's on the screen in front of her.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109