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More than 50,000 Utah students are earning high school credit from their bedrooms, dens and kitchens. And though the Electronic High School may not be the easiest way to earn credits, students are flocking to the program to catch up on classes, graduate early or just fit a few more electives into their school days.

Currently Utah has the largest online learning program in the country. Florida is a distant second with just over 20,000 enrolled.

Richard Siddoway, principal of the Electronic High School, said Utah had a jump on the rest of the nation in establishing the program. While other states started creating online courses in the late '90s, the program debuted in Utah in 1993 — before Netscape, Explorer and other browsers.

Students back then used file transfer protocol.

"There was a great deal of skepticism when we began that we were going to be a diploma mill," Siddoway said. "But when they learned that courses were equally rigorous or more so that went away — from polite skepticism to finally embracing it."

The program has doubled each year since 2000, the year officials established a solid course management system.

"I think what is happening here are kids are very familiar with the online world — they've just become a very technologically savvy group," Siddoway said. "I think the digital divide has closed remarkably, and every kid knows what he's doing."

He said the program has filled a niche for students who need to make up credit. And the option looks really good when it's compared to retaking classes after school or in the summer.

"The anytime, anywhere, anyplace delivery has just opened up options for kids," Siddoway said. "And with the state board moving toward increased graduation requirements, I am sure we are going to become more popular."

Currently the program has around 150 classes, 100 teachers and 51,000 students. The courses are free, and students can enroll anytime during the school year.

"If a person got their entire education through Electronic High School then I think they would really be missing something, but as long as it is a class here and there, then I think it is beneficial," said Rick Jaramillo, assistant principal at West High.

Ryan Burton, a senior at the Academy for Math Engineering and Science, opted to take a Spanish class this summer online to free up some course time his senior year. At AMES, students are required to take three years of foreign language and four years of math, science and English classes to graduate.

They also have the option of taking college courses for free so Burton said having one less class to worry about helps.

"I've heard (EHS) classes are harder, because you don't have anyone pushing you, and you have to do it on your own," said Burton, who plans to set aside time during the summer weeks for the course work.

Siddoway said many students, like Burton, enroll to get courses out of the way or to graduate early, but many others are trying to make up credit. Many homeschoolers are also enrolled as well as are high school dropouts who want to earn a diploma.

Siddoway said physical education classes are among the most popular. Some students don't like to shower in locker rooms or don't like the competitiveness that often accompanies traditional physical education classes. In online classes, students log required workouts and also study health-related topics.

English, algebra and U.S. government are also top picks among EHS students.

Currently state leaders are exploring the idea of taking the program nationwide.

This month the State Board of Education gave the green light to go forward in developing a plan that would create a second Electronic High School campus that would be marketed nationally.

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Partnering with entrepreneurs, the second campus, currently called the American Academy, would be a for-profit program targeting 18-to-30-year-olds who have not earned high school diplomas.

EHS would supply teachers, courses and issue diplomas and also get a cut of the profits to roll back into EHS.

Siddoway said finding teachers would be easy, since he has around 500 teachers who have expressed interest in teaching in the program.

A proposal and business plan are expected to be ready sometime next fall.


E-mail: terickson@desnews.com