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Public charter BlueSky Online achieves kudos and formal accreditation

Enrollment is up, a new digital career and technical education program is getting rave reviews, and 120 seniors are on course to graduate in June.

The good news just keeps coming at BlueSky Online high school’s bricks-and-mortar headquarters in West St. Paul. Enrollment is up, a new digital career and technical education program is getting rave reviews, and 120 seniors are on course to graduate in June.

Oh, yeah — and praising the school’s “powerful practices,” a team of outside evaluators from the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement has granted the program formal accreditation.

The recognition would be enough to spark celebration at any school, but at 13-year-old BlueSky it’s the equivalent of making the dean’s list.

larsen portrait
Amy Larsen

“When parents hear that word” — accreditation — “it just provides a sense of ease even if they don’t understand exactly what it means,” said Interim Executive Director Amy Larsen.

A little more than a year ago, BlueSky’s future seemed tenuous. Acting on anonymous tips assumed to be from disgruntled former staffers, officials had accused the school of numerous violations of state law. The most serious: That BlueSky graduated students who had not met all of the standards.

Four years of contentious back and forth ensued, in large part because the state’s charter laws were notoriously weak concerning the process for shutting down a failing school and the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) was ill-equipped to conduct formal investigations.

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BlueSky mounted a vigorous defense, responding to MDE criticism by overhauling everything from its administrative structure to its curriculum. Still, the resulting negative headlines and multiple trips to court took a toll on enrollment and staff retention.

Finally, in February 2012 the program received a stay of execution. After hearing arguments from both sides concerning a process that began before her tenure, Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius concluded that both MDE staff and the school’s leaders had acted in good faith.

A watershed case

The case was a watershed for several reasons. It tested both MDE’s authority to close a school and Minnesota’s then newly strengthened charter accountability law. And it required an agency that had been trying to close the school down to change course and move into Cassellius’ desired role of support provider.

BlueSky had been operating for more than a decade, but virtual schools were still quite rare. There was a great deal of mistrust about the concept and confusion about how to monitor the rigor and quality of a digital classroom.

Adding to the tension, a number of publicly traded, for-profit companies were launching online schools and lobbying for concessions in state legislatures around the country. With some validity, many feared that an online school was an attempt to virtually cram as many students as possible into a single “class” taught by an unlicensed teacher in another state.

Many high-needs students

By contrast, BlueSky can be more intense than regular school. As a public charter, it enrolls any student it has space for, but a disproportionate share of its student body has high needs.

Many start out behind academically and socially. Scores on state standardized tests are commensurately low, with reading proficiency hovering around 50 percent and math between 10 percent and 20 percent.

Many of its students have mental-health issues or histories of being bullied or traumatized that make attending school in person painful. Some, including teen parents, must work during the day or have athletic or performing-arts careers that compel them to attend school on tour. Some are homeschooled students who prefer to stay at home for high school, while others live far from a school building.   

Each student is assigned a team

Because so many of its students need intensive services to stay in school, each BlueSky student is put through a thorough intake and orientation. After their needs are assessed, they are assigned a team that includes a social worker, a counselor and a home-base teacher who “meets” with them at least once a week. If they are in the picture, parents get a weekly call from the teacher.

The outside accreditors praised the structure in their final report. “The counselors are alert and ready to assist with career and any socio-emotional obstacle to the student’s progress,” the evaluators wrote. “The social worker engages deliberately to assure access for the learner to the technology and assistance necessary to participate and to help the student access social services that may be essential or supplementary to the learning of the student.

“The school is exemplary in its commitment to its mission and vision, as well in its innovative use of technology and available support,” the report concluded. “Staff are dedicated and committed to the success of each student.”

During some of BlueSky’s courses students and teachers meet online. Others are set up for students to complete at their own pace. The school’s technology has numerous built-in accountability features that log how long a student actually worked — turning on the computer but not working results in a student being locked out — whether assignments were turned in and where students may be in danger of falling behind.

Many ways of engaging students

“During observations the team was impressed with the multiple ways students were engaged, via many modalities, multiple links to resources, venues to connect with other students and with teachers, and varied and interesting course discussions and assignments,” the evaluators noted. “Students and parents commented that teachers were very present in course rooms, and that teachers back channeled via email, or by meeting students via other electronic connections.”

With the school’s survival more assured, staff this year introduced a range of career and technical courses that have proven popular. And they are working to create opportunities for students and staff to meet face to face.

A dance was held Saturday night, for example. And fundraising has begun for field trip to Costa Rica planned for the summer of 2014.

On May 8, the school will be host a nontraditional career and college fair [PDF] from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. The event is open to all students, not just those enrolled in BlueSky, who wish to explore nontraditional career opportunities. The fair will take place at the school’s headquarters, located at 33 Wentworth Ave. E., Suite 100, in West St. Paul.