Students who enroll in the Duluth school district’s alternative high school are moving to a four-day, part-online, part face-to-face instruction this fall.

Students who enroll in the Duluth school district’s alternative high school are moving to a four-day, part-online, part face-to-face instruction this fall.

Known in the education world as a “blended” program, the students of the former Unity High School will have the chance to create their own schedules within 10-hour school days to work around things like jobs.

“We’re trying to meet the students’ needs,” said Adrian Norman, assistant principal of Duluth’s alternative programs. “Our data didn’t show success on Fridays. It didn’t show attendance on Fridays.”

About 85 students were enrolled in Unity at the end of last school year, with 25 in the independent study program, he said. Unity is for students who were referred from Denfeld or East high schools for behavior or learning reasons, or who chose it for reasons such as preferring the smaller environment to the larger schools. Numbers should be roughly the same for this coming year.

Students will help pick a new name for the high school, which saw the layoff of four of the eight teachers employed last year for the in-school and independent study programs. The Duluth Federation of Teachers allowed the district to hire teachers comfortable and in some cases experienced with online instruction and training. A counselor and four teachers will make up this year’s staff.

The School Board is being asked tonight to approve contracts with Herndon, Va.-based K-12 Virtual Schools for $80,000 and $30,000 for one year of online learning services. The bigger contract is for the alternative program and the smaller one is for a homebound program for students who need instruction at home.

The district is going through the certification process with the Minnesota Department of Education to run its own online program, and the process takes about a year. Once certified, it hopes to enroll students from outside the school district.

Other Minnesota school districts have found success in running their own programs and have built up enrollment because of it, said Assistant Superintendent Ed Crawford.

Online learning vendors are tapping into every district in the state and beyond, he said, and that’s something that school districts can also do. Duluth hopes eventually to gain new students and regain students it lost to online programs, home-schooling or other schools.

“All of those things are going to be part of our goal,” Crawford said.

High school instruction is the starting point, he said, “Because that seems to be the area where we lose our kids. And many of the kids who leave our high schools engage in online learning.”

Often, that learning isn’t successful, Crawford said, and Duluth’s online curriculum and teachers would help provide more checks and balances.

As for the yet-to-be-named successor to Unity, students will still get regular, face-to-face instruction at Historic Old Central High School on a part-time basis, probably 50 percent of the time or more. When they are home or using a computer off-campus, they can talk to teachers online through platforms like Google+ Hangout, which is for instant messaging and video chats. Computer labs and a collection of Google Chromebooks are available for students to use every day, Norman said, and will be supervised.

Crawford acknowledged that some students might not have access to computers, so the school is making Denfeld and East computer labs available as well as what’s available at Historic Old Central.

Duluth’s teachers will teach all of the courses. Curriculum is a blend of Duluth and the virtual school’s offerings. The district’s credit recovery program for East and Denfeld students will also switch to the new vendor.

The online portion, Crawford said, allows Unity students to learn at their own pace. They can review materials they may not have understood by re-watching lessons. And when they need help, he said, it’s there.

“This is going to be a work in progress,” Norman said. “We will tweak it according to meeting the population’s needs. But I am really excited. This is long overdue and a definite need for our students to have that high-tech piece.”