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When summer school classes began this week for West Sonoma County Union High School District, instruction for the first time was entirely computer based.

The transition to online summer school is a cost- saving measure for the financially strapped school district, and one that should benefit the 250 to 300 students who attend summer classes, Assistant Superintendent Steve Charbonneau said.

It’ll cost about half of what traditional summer school does, Charbonneau said, though he couldn’t provide exact figures.

The district, which includes Analy, El Molino and Laguna high schools, was one of the last in Sonoma County to offer traditional in-class instruction during the summertime for students who needed to make up classes.

“It does cost money; it’s not common,” he said about offering summer school. “However, it shouldn’t be a surprise that it actually helps students’ graduation rates because it gives them a chance to make up credits they need to make up.”

For students who need to make up credits, the process will be more streamlined under the new model. Students have the option to test out of lessons they’re already familiar with, which means they won’t be forced to sit through an entire course curriculum if they don’t need to.

“Say you’ve mastered three-quarters of the content, and instead of sitting in a traditional setting for six weeks of summer school — that’s almost punitive — in this case it’s actually like that student could finish summer school in two weeks,” Charbonneau said. “That’s what we’re pretty excited about.”

County Superintendent Steve Herrington said fewer districts across California are offering summer school — the result of a state funding cut in 2008. Across the state and in Sonoma County, the districts that still offer summer school mostly have switched to an online version, he said.

“Last year about this time, the concern was, ‘Hey, can we afford to keep offering summer school?’ ” Charbonneau said. “And it’s interesting, when you go through challenges, sometimes they’re the perfect formula for a great idea. Something that’s like, why didn’t we do this sooner?”

Under the computer-based model, about half the teachers previously tapped to help with summer school were needed this year. The district also won’t have to pay for the day-to-day operating costs of keeping a school campus open during the summer.

The savings are a big help to the West County district, which this spring struggled to close a $1.2 million budget shortfall caused by declining enrollment numbers, rising employee pensions and health care costs, plus the state’s Local Control Funding Formula.

The new formula allocates extra resources to schools that serve high rates of English language learners and students from low-income families — increasingly not the case in the communities served by the district, where housing costs continue to rise.

According to real estate website Zillow, the median home price in Sebastopol was $881,900 in April.

The software purchased by the district is created by online learning company Edmentum, and offers 224 University of California-approved courses, Charbonneau said. District teachers will track students’ progress, and be available for one-on-one meetings and tutoring as needed, he said.

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“Summer school offers (struggling students) that window, that grace, to get back on track to graduate,” Charbonneau said. “That’s been successful for us. We wanted to make sure we saved that, and that it was a viable program, and it was just as good as what we offered before.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.

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