In its first semester, the Montana Digital Academy has demonstrated the value of statewide access to high-quality online learning for high school students.
Across Montana, 1,430 students from 137 high schools have enrolled in one or more of 45 high school classes or five college courses, according to a report from the academy. Altogether, the 1,430 students have 1,951 course enrollments this fall.
A list of the 11 most popular classes shows the need for access to distance learning:
Many schools don't have a foreign language teacher. But more than 300 Montana high school students are taking Spanish 1, French 1 or Latin 1 this semester through the academy.
Electives that aren't otherwise widely available can be accessed: Digital photography and web design courses are serving 200 students online.
The rest of the top academy courses are core classes, such as English 1, Earth Science, U.S. History and Health. Through the academy, students who need to make up classes can complete them online.
The high school courses are taught by 67 Montana licensed teachers from 29 districts, including Baker, Billings, Bozeman, Colstrip, Columbus, Hardin and Roundup.
The five college courses are offered for dual college and high school credits. The University of Montana College of Technology in Missoula is offering pre-calculus while the Montana State University College of Technology in Great Falls is offering classes in anthropology, Montana's American Indians, psychology and writing.
A key feature of the Montana Digital Academy is that all classes are offered at no charge to students, their families or high schools.
We call upon the Montana Legislature to renew support for the Digital Academy for the upcoming biennium. To be successful, the academy needs enough funding to offer classes at no charge to the students or local school districts.
The academy's governing board has recommended level funding: $2.3 million for the biennium. Board members are Chairman Bruce Messinger, Helena superintendent, Dennis Parman, deputy superintendent of public instruction, Commissioner of Higher Education Sheila Stearns, Billings teacher Barbara Fettig, Geraldine school trustee Bryan Duvall and Roberta Evans, dean of the University of Montana College of Education.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer included Digital Academy funding in his budget proposal. Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau supports the academy.
As Juneau told The Gazette: “This is a huge success story that came out of the last session.”
Legislative support needed
The next legislative session should invest in the Digital Academy's continued success. Lawmakers should recognize the value of distance learning. It is a critical part of our education future and a valuable investment for Montana.
Although the academy has had a good launch, it has potential to do much more. Programming for middle and elementary school students is being developed. The number of high school students enrolled can be expected to grow as students learn more about the academy. Remember, these first students signed up for fall classes last spring — before the academy even existed.