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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Rachel Halliburton, left, plays with her brother Emmett while on a trip to the park with some of her siblings, 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.

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.

Many high school students have used online options to take a few classes in addition to traditional public schooling, freeing up their schedules for student government, athletics or advanced courses, Hales said.

Others have opted for an exclusively online experience, some even using their Internet connection to study with Utah schools while touring overseas or joining their parents leading missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Taking a few classes online can also be an effective option for remediation, allowing students with failed or incomplete credits to finish requirements for the high school diploma, an answer for students who have been faced with a sick family member, a serious injury, struggles in the classroom or any number of challenges, Hales said.

"These kids need our help, they need the additional resources," Hales said.

Some, like Rachel Halliburton, simply prefer online learning to a traditional classroom. Linda Harless, principal of Utah Connections Academy, called online schooling a natural extension for students who have grown up using social media to connect and the Internet to access information.

"They like the flexibility of being able to structure their school day, rather than having the strict 8-to-3 kind of schedule," Harless said. "Or we have kids that like technology, so this is (right for) them. If you think about this generation, they're so into technology, it's like they're born with it."

As students "take charge" of their own learning, meeting regularly with school officials to set personal goals and measure their progress, they take ownership of their education and learn responsibility, Harless said.

Angelos said enrolling with UCA finalized her decision to enlist in the military — it was practically simultaneous, she said. Learning to set goals, manage time and take personal responsibility went hand-in-hand with online learning as well as military training, she said.

"I can do things at my own pace," Angelos said, grateful she was able to plan schooling around her military training schedule. "I worked so long for this and it's finally happening. It feels really nice."

Angelos will enter basic training this fall, a fact that had her UCA teachers beaming on graduation day.

Harless has been with Utah Connections Academy since the beginning, and as she prepares for her third year as principal, she has seen enrollment climb from an initial 250 students to an estimated 750 enrolled for next fall.

"More and more students realize this is an education option for them," Harless said. "A lot of students just love and thrive in the online environment. They like to be in charge of how their day works for them, and we can offer that."

For information on online offerings, see www.connectionsacademy.com/home.aspx.

Email: mromero@deseretnews.com

Twitter: McKenzieRomero