In a bid to capture students who are fleeing traditional school settings, Santa Rosa City Schools is pressing forward with plans to establish an online charter high school.
The district hopes to begin offering classes by the 2012-13 school year and eventually expand the program to include kindergarten through seventh grade.
"I do not want to wait on this," said trustee Donna Jeye. "I think this is critical to the future of our district. Otherwise people are going to cherry pick our kids because there are businesses out there already doing it."
The school board last week<NO1><NO> approved spending up to $60,000 for a part-time administrator to coordinate creation of a planning committee and to press forward with an application to the California Department of Education.
Officials could not provide figures for the number of students they believe are leaving the district to enroll in online programs, but said that last year, 463 graduation-requirement classes were taken by Santa Rosa students on a fee-based online program run by Brigham Young University.
Board President Frank Pugh said many students cannot afford to pay $250 per online course and a district-backed program would become "a great equalizer."
"I think the potential to do good is great," he said.
In the 2009-10 school year, more than 10,300 students were enrolled in charter schools in Sonoma County, according to the state Department of Education. Of those, 7,992 were in a site-based program, 2,027 were in independent study and 360 were in a so-called hybrid program that offers online curriculum in combination with some on-site instruction.
This year, 115 new charter schools opened in California, the most since the Charter Schools Law was enacted in 1992. Of those, 91 were site-based, 15 were independent study and nine were a hybrid or combination of independent and site-based program.
Many independent study programs offer online elements, but the state's ability to track numbers is difficult because of the individualized structure of many programs.
Still in its infancy, the idea being pursued in Santa Rosa is to establish a charter school that would offer enrichment classes to students at comprehensive high schools as well as a full range of graduation requirement coursework for students who would not attend a traditional high school, said Anastasia Zita, assistant superintendent of secondary instruction.
"What we are learning is that the hybrid model provides a solution for many types of learners," she said. "Alternative is not a &‘less than,' it's just something different."
Key factors are the onslaught of deep budget cuts, combined with the emergence of a generation that is technologically savvy at ever-earlier ages. As a result, the so-called hybrid model of online classes mixed with teacher-taught labs and discussions are becoming an increasingly popular choice for families, said Rick Phelan, curriculum and technology services coordinator for the Sonoma County Office of Education.
Districts are saying they need to compete because they can lose students to such programs, he said. But it is difficult to track their quality.
"The pushback is that one, is there a problem with the content? Is it reflecting the same level of rigor in the way that students are assessed?" he said.
Santa Rosa Teachers Union president Andy Brennan said a successful program will put Santa Rosa City Schools on the front end of a positive trend, but urged the district to keep a high level of interaction as part of the program.