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School leaders developing online courses for income, recognition

Benjamin Franklin High School is looking to develop online coursework, both to bring in new money and to increase the school’s reach.

At the board’s meeting Dec. 19, school president and CEO Timothy Rusnak gave a presentation on Louisiana’s Course Choice program. This online learning program allows high school students to take a multitude of online courses through other institutions, in-state or otherwise, and bring that grade back to the students’ home high schools.

The state program began this school year. Benjamin Franklin High School will begin next year with an AP calculus course taught by Michael Masterson, who has developed online learning at community colleges. He is working with Rusnak to develop the online curriculum and the platform that students will use to access the coursework.

“We are trying to get on this early, and often because some BESE board members have approached me personally suggesting we look at this. It is something that is not stoppable,” Rusnak said. “It is here, and we think this is prime time. It’s an excellent opportunity for Benjamin Franklin High School to really magnify its already powerful impact in this region.”

Course Choice allows students to take courses with any state-approved provider. Some board members expressed fear that this might lead to some Benjamin Franklin High School students to take a class with Course Choice provider in order to find an easier alternative the offerings at Franklin. All Louisiana schools must accept credits earned through a Course Choice course, Rusnak said.

Schools can, however, make a note about where the credits were earned on their students’ transcripts. This is one way Benjamin Franklin High School can discourage its students from taking courses elsewhere, Rusnak said, because it might reflect poorly on them in their college applications.

Schools are paid $1,200 per student enrolled in Course Choice, so this is a possible source of revenue for the school as well. Schools have to pay that fee if they are rated F, D or C by the state. Schools with a grade of A or B, such as Benjamin Franklin High School, don’t have to pay the fee. Instead, students and their families have to pay for the course costs.

“The money is not really the issue. We’ll never lose revenue as a result of this,” said board member Mark Mayer. “It’s really the question about academic rigor.”

By the end of the meeting, most board members saw Course Choice as an opportunity for the school to expand its reach by working with students at other schools. However, there was still some hesitation about how it might detract from the learning experience for the school’s students.

“This is a business model we’re talking about. This is not a Franklin experience. The two are separate,” said board member Ingrid Labat. “I don’t have any problem making money with a business model and having our product out there. But I’m concerned about the Franklin experience, the Orleans Parish student or the student who’s in the fourth grade. When they come through, what does that mean for the Franklin product?”

The AP calculus course for next year will act as a “pilot program,” Rusnak said, and will help to determine how the school will participate in online learning in the future.

In Chief Financial Officer Allison Bowler’s report to the board, she said the school will no longer have accounts with Capital One Bank and Chase. The school will instead open an account with First NBC Bank in the coming weeks because it offers no fees, a higher interest rate and a courier service.

Board members also received an annual audit report, which showed no findings.

“It’s a nice change,” board president Duris Holmes said.

Board members approved a one-year extension to Rusnak’s contract, through June 30, 2016.

No future board meeting date was set at the time of the meeting, though it is scheduled for 4 p.m. on Jan. 16, according to the school’s website.

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