District goes on offensive with Thunder Academy

• Instead of losing students to online options and home-schools, proposed program would try to recover, retain kids


by Jim Boyle


The Elk River Area School District loses students to nearby districts, charter schools, home schooling and online learning options.

Zimmerman High School is about to go on the offensive to get some of those students back and hopes to retain the students it already has.

It’s seeking Elk River Area School Board approval to pilot Thunder Academy, a fully online curriculum incorporating Apex Learning and Careers 101 with work experience opportunities. It hopes to develop a competitive advantage by providing face time with an instructor stationed at the school from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to answer questions and provide help.

“The goal is to save money,” said Assistant Principal Jason Savage. “We have got a lot of students leaving the district. We have got a lot of kids going online. We got a lot of kids being home-schooled.

“We want to draw those kids back and draw that money back to the school district.”

The cost of the pilot is estimated at $38,225. It’s much harder to estimate second-year costs, school officials said, but they could top $400,000 depending on how much interest develops in the online option.

Zimmerman administrators have taken several steps in hopes of running the pilot this spring, including seeking a waiver to have a teacher oversee the students. They’re also working toward becoming an online provider, which would open the school up to serve kids outside the school district.

The Houston Independent School District in southern Minnesota did this when it was facing financial troubles, and now has more than 1,800 students from outside of its district taking courses online, according to Joe Stangler, the administrator of testing and assessment. Some of Houston’s students reside in the Elk River Area School District.

“I guarantee you these kids are not driving down to Houston,” Stangler said.

“We think if we can offer something more supportive, more attractive, we’re going to get them back,” Zimmerman High School Principal Marco Voce said.

Apex is the same program being considered by Ivan Sand Community High School to create a hybrid learning environment.

Zimmerman proposed to be a full-fledged online offering with some additional pairings to meet some of the needs of students who leave.

One group is students whose families have been hit hard by the recession and are now providing a main source of income for their families.

Savage said these students need flexibility and could greatly benefit from Career Ready 101 and work experience opportunities.

The careers course would lead Thunder Academy students to certification with ACT WorkKeys assessments and the National Center for Readiness certificates.

ACT WorkKeys works with businesses to assemble tests that, when taken, can provide employers with a knowledge and understanding of skill sets applicants have to do their jobs.

“They tell the employers whether they have the soft skills, the reading skills, the math skills, the problem-solving skills,” Savage said. “It’s like an ACT test, but it’s for going into the workforce.”

Zimmerman High School plans to partner with workforce centers to help students land jobs.