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There's nothing new about high school students taking geography, chemistry, driver ed or physics.

But this year, Utah students have more opportunities than ever to take those and dozens of other classes online for free.

In a whirlwind of activity, school districts throughout the state have joined together in recent months to offer more online classes, partly to avoid losing money under provisions of a new state law. The Salt Lake City School District has led the charge, working with districts and charter schools to help hook their students up with online offerings this year. And seven other districts — Davis, Granite, Jordan, Murray, Nebo, Park City and Tooele — have formed a second consortium, that grew out of the first, to offer online classes to students in their districts. Other districts also have their own offerings, some new and some ongoing.

Students who sign up will take the classes and do assignments online, on their own time.

"I'm extremely pleased that districts are finally moving forward with online education in this manner," said Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who sponsored the bill, SB65, behind the new law. "When school districts don't have to respond to market demand, they often don't," Stephenson said. "SB65 basically induces them to respond to market demand for fear of losing funding, and I think that's a good thing."

Under the new law, public school students in grades 9-12 can take up to two classes online this year, offered by other school districts and charter schools, instead of at their regular high schools. The idea is to give students more choice and opportunity.

But school districts have to send about $727 for each full-year course a student takes from a provider outside his home school district to the provider, according to the state Office of Education.

That's where the two consortia come in. The districts hope that by offering their own online programs, students won't feel the need to take online courses from outside providers.

"Once SB65 came out and was signed into law, we thought, 'Hey, we've got to do something in public education to respond,' " said Kenneth Grover, Salt Lake district director of secondary education. He is the chairman of the new Utah Education Online Consortium, which serves about half of the school districts in the state, mainly smaller districts, and a few charters.

Grover said the Salt Lake district was already working on expanding its online offerings when SB65 passed, and the law just jump-started the process. He said once the law passed, the Salt Lake district started meeting with others across the state, and the Utah Education Online Consortium was born.

Through the consortium, which is run by the Salt Lake district, students can choose from more than 120 classes provided by the Utah Electronic High School, online education provider K12, Apex Learning, Brigham Young University or the Florida Virtual School.

The electronic high school classes are free to districts because they're already funded by the state. The other classes cost districts money, but not $727. The consortium was able to negotiate prices with those vendors, getting the classes for about $500 a credit or less.

The second consortium, Utah Students Connect, also arose from those initial discussions, Grover said. The districts in that consortium — Nebo, Granite, Park City, Davis, Tooele, Jordan and Murray — share resources and won't lose the $727 when a student takes a class throughConnect.

"We're trying to provide the most high-quality classes for students but also stop the bleeding, unfortunately, which SB65 does," said Patrick Colclough, Granite online credit coordinator.

Also, consortia leaders note, students who take online classes offered by their home districts or the electronic high school can take those classes on top of their regular schedules. But if they take online classes from outside providers through SB65, they have to take those classes in lieu of some regular school-day classes. It's a limit included in the law to keep costs down, Stephenson said.

Though students have, in some cases, only a few more days to register for the online classes by going to their counselors, demand has been mixed.

Grover said Friday about 112 students had signed up through the Utah Education Online Consortium. Counts vary by district in the other consortium with, for example, about 300 students signed up in Granite.

Statewide, as of Thursday, students had signed up for about 136 courses offered by providers outside their districts and charter schools under the state program created by SB65, said Sean Thomas, audit and finance specialist at the state Office of Education.

Judi Clark, executive director of Parents for Choice in Education, said the $727 is a reasonable amount for districts to pay to outside providers, but she said she's happy to see districts creating their own offerings as well. "There was a handful of districts providing online learning, and now we have seen this surge of innovation," Clark said.

Grover said he hopes the consortia help Salt Lake and other districts avoid losing too much money, but he has also embraced the new law because he believes online classes are the future of education.

"Our schools are doing a great job, but times are changing," Grover said. "By allowing students options and choices, I believe we capture students we would otherwise lose." —

More about online classes

O Statewide Public Education Online:

Utah Students Connect:

Utah Education Online Consortium: