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Monte Vista’s High-Tech High School

Article by Marcia Darnell

Education – October 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

IMAGINE GOING through high school again. Now stop grimacing and imagine going to class only when you want to, not having to match your learning pace with everyone else’s, and never having to listen to a lecture in a classroom or stand in line in the cafeteria.

That’s the reality of high school at Monte Vista’s On-Line Academy, which is now in its seventh year of educating people who don’t fit the mold.

“There are a lot of students out there who don’t fit into a traditional program for a variety of reasons,” says Don Wilkinson, in explaining the growth of his unique school. The program, which opened in 1995 with 13 students, is shepherding 91 people through high school and junior high this year.

Wilkinson, now the superintendent of the Monte Vista School District, was the first director of the academy, now run by Alan McFadden. The academy offers a core curriculum over the internet for teen parents, adults, kids in trouble, kids who work, and anyone else who wants a non-traditional route to a diploma.

The idea for the program came from a software developer from the Four Corners area who was looking for a partner to create and market an education business. The Monte Vista school system rejected the marketing plan, but liked the idea of an internet school. Wilkinson and his cohorts went to the state board of education and were approved to start a pilot project.

“We had no money, we had no curriculum, nothing, so we spent the summer doing some road work, recruited some students, got a basic website up and started that fall with thirteen kids,” he remembers.

The first students were “rough kids,” mostly from a Denver probation program. The idea caught on with others, though, thanks to the success of Monte’s on-site alternative high school, the Byron Syring Delta Center.

“We really consider it an adult high school,” Wilkinson says, “because we deal with students who are 16 to 78. We just took our on-site alternative curriculum and modified it and made it web-based.”

The on-line academy collects the same per-pupil operating funds from the state as any on-site school. The difference is the students.

“Some kids just don’t like to go to school from 8 to 3, they’d rather do their work at two o’clock in the morning,” says Wilkinson. “It’s not that they’re bad kids, they just have different needs. We try to meet those needs.”

The curriculum is standard-based, he says.

“We’ve tried to reduce it down to what the kids should know. An English class has a literature component, a writing component, a grammar component, just like a traditional class. But if a kid has to write a persuasive essay, if they demonstrate they can write a good, persuasive essay, we check that off and they go on to the next thing, whereas in a traditional school oftentimes they have to repeat it. Some kids like doing that, but other kids say, ‘Hey, what’s the point? I’ve shown you I can do that, why do I have to continually show you that I can do that?’

“I agree you get better by writing it over and over again, but sometimes you lose kids that way. So it’s proficiency-based. Once a kid shows he has that skill, he moves on.”

WILKINSON COMPARES the school to a correspondence course, but the students correspond on-line. Submitted assignments are graded and returned within 24 hours, “sometimes within an hour,” Wilkinson says.

“We do some things on the phone,” he adds, “and limited things in chat rooms. We can do math problems on a white board, with a camera on it, so the student can see us doing a math problem. They’re doing correspondence courses, but the feedback is immediate.”

The classes are asynchronous — there are no due dates on assignments.

“Some kid might really start whipping through that history class. Some kids work on one or two classes at a time, finish them and move on; other kids work on all four or five of their classes at a time.”

For that reason, the academy attracts individualists. “We find that a lot of kids who don’t have a good track record in the traditional program oftentimes do very well with us because they have a little bit of ‘buy-in’ in the program. They don’t have a teacher telling them ‘This assignment’s due tomorrow.'”

Students are given the year’s program at once, and guidelines are offered as to where they should be by a certain time, but those aren’t enforced. The student can decide how to proceed.

“I had a student last year who did one class at a time. She would spent six weeks on a class, finish it, and go on to the next one.”

Some students finish the four-year high school program in three years.

“This is a good, solid, basic educational program for them,” Wilkinson says. “Is it as good as a traditional program? Probably not. But I think it gives them a good solid basis, so that if they decide they want to go into an engineering school, they’ve got the basic skills that they can go on. I’ve got two students; one graduated last year. She started with us as an eighth-grader, and she got a Fulbright scholarship to CU. Her sister started with us when she was a freshman, and she graduated the year before last. She’s got a Fulbright scholarship to Colorado College. Those are tough schools to get into, and they spent their whole high school time online.

“Virtually all of our graduates have gone on to some post-secondary education,” Wilkinson concludes.

The school requires 24 credits for graduation, less than most high schools, because of the shortage of elective courses, but that part of school can be custom designed by the student as well.

“We can be real flexible on electives,” says Wilkinson. “We had a kid in Denver who was into theater. She was involved in some programs at the Denver center for performing arts, where she got some training, probably better training than she’d get in a high school drama program. She kept a log of her hours and sent us a tape of a performance that she was part of, and we had her research some playwrights. Then we gave her credit for drama.

“Kids taking piano lessons can log their practice time, have their instructor sign off on it, and we give them credit for it. Why not? It’s a good learning experience.

“We have a young lady whose dad is an accountant. She works for him, and we give her an accounting credit.”

WILKINSON’S ENTHUSIASM grew when, after 17 years as a high school biology teacher, he became an assistant principal and started counseling students.

“I really got my eyes opened as to the types of things kids were going through,” he says. “No wonder they didn’t finish their biology assignments — some of them didn’t know where they were going to sleep that night. The more I worked with kids outside the classroom, the more I saw a lot of different needs we weren’t meeting.”

One graduate, Charis Perschbacher of Salida, says the self-motivation of the academy has helped her in college. Now a senior at Western State College, she completed her last three years of high school on-line.

“They work well with the kids,” she says. “You have to do most of the learning on your own, and they supported me well through that.”

Perschbacher was able to take college courses through Colorado Mountain College while completing her high school diploma.

“It was more beneficial for me to do high school that way,” she says.

Monte Vista offers an on-line program starting in seventh grade, but they discourage kids from starting that young “because it takes a lot of self-discipline and self-motivation, and at that age, that’s not a real strong characteristic.”

Junior high students are screened for heavy parental involvement, to ensure they stay on track.

This year, 91 students are studying on-line. They’re all in Colorado, though in past years students have participated from as far away as Massachusetts. This year, Monte Vista has partnered with Walsh school district (near the Nebraska border) and the North Conejos County school district. Wilkinson looks forward to more growth for the program, and more opportunities for students to find their own paths to a diploma.

“Schools have to change,” he says. “We can’t keep that same old attitude, because every kid’s different.”

For information on Monte Vista’s On-Line Academy, log on to or call 719-852-4996.

Marcia Darnell trudged through four years of traditional high school in New Mexico in the ’70s. She still has nightmares about it.