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Rochester Public Schools' online option takes off during first year

Although "Rochester" is in the name of the school, it is able to pull both students and staff from a much broader area.

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Rochester Public Schools' new online school has found a solid footing during its first year in operation.

The district first announced plans for the project last year, providing a permanent option for students who thrived in the online environment that formed when the pandemic forced students into distance learning. The school board heard an update on the online school Tuesday night.

Although both distance learning and the new virtual school -- called RPS Online -- look similar on the surface, those working at the new online school insist it's different.

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"This isn't just DL (distance learning) with a new name; we are our own school," the teacher Kim Hill told the school board. "I've been teaching a really long time. And if you had told me I'd fall in love with teaching in a virtual classroom where I couldn't wrap my arms around my students and give them hugs ... I would have told you that you were dreaming."

Andrew Neumann, principal of RPS Online, reiterated that distinction between the current online school and the version of distance learning the district had to undertake during the pandemic.

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"We're not DL 2.0; we're online learning at its best," he said. "We are the only one of our kind, K-12, that is fully synchronous in the state. And that sets us apart."

There are 518 students enrolled in grades K-12 in the online school. Of that total, 161 are at the high school level, 125 are at the middle school level, and 232 are at the elementary level.

The online option also has a large mix of students. According to Neumann, more than 60% of the elementary students are minorities, more than 56% of the high school students are minorities, and nearly 59% of the middle school students are minorities.

"We're one of the most diverse schools in the district," Neumann said.

Due to the very nature of the school, it's able to attract students from far beyond the physical boundaries of Rochester Public Schools.

The school has 90 staff members who work for the school either part time or full time. According to Neumann, only about half of that staff lives in Rochester, since, like the students, they're able to log in from anywhere.

According to Jacque Peterson, RPS executive director of elementary and secondary education, one of the teachers even lives in Georgia. They've also hired a teacher in Arizona.

"With RPS Online, we can cast a wider net because teachers are able to teach remotely," Peterson said. "So we're probably in better shape than when schools are trying to hire in-person staff."

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RPS Online is not the only online school available. It's not even the only public school with an online option. And that begs the question, what sets RPS Online apart?

As Neumann indicated, one benefit is that RPS has live teachers interacting with students in real time, rather than simply providing recordings. Peterson said another factor is that even though the school is online, they're able to meet with students and guardians at any time in person. That means there's a weekly pick-up option if students need supplies for a project or something similar. The district also provides meals to its online students, similar to how it did during the pandemic.

The school is expected to grow in the coming years. For its inaugural year, the school has 56 course offerings. Neumann said they expect that number to more than double by next year to 126. RPS Online currently has all the courses high school students need to graduate.

How much it will be able to grow is yet to be seen.

"Our plan is to grow this as much as we can, and especially at the secondary level," Peterson said. "That's the interesting thing about the online school: The capacity is not limited by how big our actual school is; the facilities part of it doesn't even come into play. Our goal is we want to serve the kids who want this option."

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