The districts pursued a partnership due to state rules

Online school will be an option for St. Louis Park students this school year, but the teachers will hail from the Eden Prairie School District instead.

Last year, the St. Louis Park School District offered online instruction using its own teachers – some who faced the challenge of teaching students in front of them and virtually at the same time.

The Association of Metropolitan School Districts sought to convince legislators to allow all districts to continue offering the same distance learning programs they did last year, but legislators did not reach an agreement to allow those programs to remain.

A Minnesota Department of Education document dating Aug. 6 indicates that districts that wish to provide online instruction for students for more than half of the students’ weekly schedule must apply for provisional approval from the state as an online learning provider.

Some districts, like Eden Prairie Schools, hired additional staff to become a state-approved online education provider.

“Smaller districts like St. Louis Park have to come up with other creative ways to continue to ensure that students and families that want online learning have access to that,” St. Louis Park School District Superintendent Astein Osei said at a school board meeting Aug. 10.

Although he said state rules would have allowed the district to offer the students a mix of in-person and online learning using its own personnel, the superintendent said St. Louis Park families who sought an online option had concerns about the pandemic and did not want their children to have to come into schools in person each week.

After exploring relationships with a variety of potential online school providers, Osei said St. Louis Park administrators felt best about Eden Prairie Schools’ EP Online system.

The two districts are pursuing an agreement that would ensure that Eden Prairie Schools receives funds for the services they provided while St. Louis Park Public Schools would continue to offer special education and counseling services. The St. Louis Park district is considering the creation of a homeroom experience or advisory role to connect its online students with St. Louis Park staff “so that throughout this process that student knows that they always have staff here that care and support them and keep them connected to our school district,” Osei said.

Acknowledging the risk that online students could leave the St. Louis Park School District in the future, Osei added, “We really want to be intentional throughout this process, making sure that as we do this shared-time agreement that we continue to maintain positive relationships and supports for our students choosing this online option.”

The St. Louis Park district is seeking to “build an off-ramp” with Eden Prairie Schools so that St. Louis Park families using EP Online can send their children to school in person if COVID-19 conditions improve, according to Osei.

He noted that both districts have a Spanish immersion school. EP Online will offer instruction in Spanish for kindergarten and first grade this school year but currently does not have enough pupils signed up to offer Spanish instruction for grades two through six. Osei said the district would determine how to meet the needs for Park Spanish Immersion Elementary School students in those grades who desire an online experience once officials determine how many families would be affected.

St. Louis Park School Board Chair Mary Tomback noted that last year the state had required that districts offer online instruction.

Given state rules for this school year, Tomback said, “What you’re doing now through this plan, in this program with Eden Prairie, is to try to provide our families who really feel like that is the best option for their students with some option to still be engaged with St. Louis Park schools but keep their children in the distance learning environment if they feel like that’s what’s best.”

“There are several families that are very concerned about what’s happening and aren’t comfortable sending their children in person to school at this time,” Osei said.

Boardmember Anne Casey noted that Intermediate District 287, a consortium of west metro districts that includes St. Louis Park and Eden Prairie, offers an online program called Northern Star Online. However, all classes are considered asynchronous, meaning that students are not learning live from a teacher at the same time as other students. As a result, Casey said the system is better for students taking one or two courses rather than attending full-time.

Osei said St. Louis Park officials engaged in multiple conversations with staff at Intermediate District 287 about the Northern Star Online system but agreed it did not suit students attending online classes full-time.

In contrast, he said EP Online offers both live and asynchronous experiences, with the youngest students receiving the most live instruction.

“EP Online for grades K-5 provides live, online teacher interaction each day,” according to the St. Louis Park School District’s website, slpschools.org. “Students in grades 6-12 will experience a blended model of live teaching and independent work that provides greater student flexibility.”

The district planned to notify families about the EP Online option by Aug. 20.

Eden Prairie Schools is offering a webinar about the program with director Raymond Diaz 2:30 p.m. Aug. 26. A description touts Eden Prairie Schools as “Minnesota’s leading school district” and points out that the district hires, trains and retains the teachers for EP Online.

The description states, “EP Online offers a one-of-a-kind online experience where students can learn with a live teacher nearly every school day. Say goodbye to the isolation of online learning and learn about the EP Online advantage.”

More details about EP Online are available at edenpr.org/schools-programs/ep-online.

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