Utah students make education work with the click of a mouse

Published: Sunday, June 16 2013 2:00 p.m. MDT

Rachel Halliburton dresses her brother Tyler while helping at home, Monday, June 10, 2013, in Saratoga Springs. Rachel will graduate from Utah Connections Academy, a virtual high school, in which she studied online so she could help her parents with her 10 younger siblings at home.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Rachel Halliburton wanted to help her mother care for Rachel's 10 younger siblings.

Madison Angelos had trouble focusing in a crowded classroom and was looking for time to train physically to enlist in the military.

Shawn Kapscos longed to customize his course load with more challenging classes but felt confined by the structured schedules at public school.

Each with unique needs, these three students left their traditional public schools and logged on instead, enrolling in an online charter school. They are part of Utah Connections Academy's 10-member class of 2013, graduates now ready to enroll in the next chapter of their life.

"It's different than public school, because it's a lot smaller, more intimate, and I kind of like that better," Halliburton said, both about her graduation and her high school years. She wore gold honor cords with her cap and gown, juggling a few academic medals presented to her during the small ceremony held earlier this month.

Halliburton investigated options for online learning after her family moved to Utah just over two years ago and she found she wasn't settling in to the social atmosphere at her new high school. The decision was all hers, her parents said, and it proved a blessing to the rest of her family.

"She has, along with doing school, helped take care of (her brothers and sisters)," said Jenny Halliburton, Rachel's mother, as she cradled a newborn son with one hand and wiped a tear with another. "She's been like the rock for the past year for us, to help take care of them."

Rachel Halliburton said she will work with her father for a few months in a family business before she begins making plans for college.

Since launching its first online classes in 1994, the first of their kind in the nation, Utah has seen steady growth, now numbering 11 programs through the state's school districts and four online charter schools, the State Office of Education reported.

Fully online schools have been present in Utah since 2008, and the charter schools had an estimated 3,000 students enrolled at the close of the academic year. Alongside the growing numbers, deputy superintendent Brenda Hales said the office of education has seen marked success.

"It works," Hales said, recounting the many reasons students are looking into online learning. "I guess that's the message."

The state is answering the climbing demand for online options with plans for a new teaching license designed specifically for online education, which officials hope to debut by the end of summer break, Hales said.

"The idea is that it needs to be more, and it can be so much more, than just offering an electronic workbook," Hales said. "There are definite skill sets that go along with online teaching where you can use electronic resources in ways that are unique and help kids learn."

Kapscos, who was named this year's salutatorian at the academy, was one of those students who was drawn to the flexibility of an online program. His instructors affectionately chided him as a bright student who sometimes procrastinated. Nevertheless, he aways submitted assignments before the deadline, they said.

In his graduation address, Kapscos thanked his teachers for their patience and encouraged his classmates to follow Thomas Edison's model, never give up.

"If the world followed Edison's example and tried just one more time, it would be a world without failure, just lessons learned," he said.

Kapscos is spending his summer break evaluating his options for college this fall. He is leaning toward Southern Utah University, where he hopes to study biology, he said.

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