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Rural District Expands Gifted Options With Online Courses

When a student who hoped to study engineering in college wanted to take a physics class at Deming High in rural southern New Mexico a few years ago, she couldn't. It had been offered a few years earlier, but there weren't enough other students to warrant offering the class by the time she was ready for it.

"She had to deal with it when she got" to college, said Kakee McInturff, who was the gifted adviser at Deming High for the last decade until her recent retirement.

And that's been the case for gifted and advanced students over the years in Deming, which is about 30 miles north of the Mexico border and 60 miles from anything else. Until now.

The district, with about 5,300 students, is the first in New Mexico to partner with the Virtual High School Collaborative to offer more gifted and Advanced Placement options. After a small pilot program this spring with five students, more than 20 middle and high school students will take online courses this fall.

The district, where 100 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals and many students are Mexican immigrants who are learning English can't afford to offer an AP class when fewer than 15 students sign up for it. That means a lot of courses are offered only every once in a while.

"With No Child Left Behind and all the initiatives you now have ... the focus of education is so geared toward getting kids proficient in certain things, the gifted kids are the ones that often get forgotten," McInturff said. "That's why i jumped on this; and our district agreed."

Districts can't just pay to join Virtual High School. In some cases, teachers must agree to teach courses that other students around the world can take. But the costs are still less than devoting teachers to advanced courses that only a few students are taking, McInturff said.

While the small pilot had mixed success, she's hopeful that next school year will go better. In the pilot, students had to work on classes on their own, at home, sometimes with tenuous internet connections and older model computers. Students had to be highly self-motivated to complete their coursework.

In the fall, students—who have access to 150 courses through Virtual High School—will take their classes during the day, at school, and there will be dedicated staff to check on their progress.

"We're moving forward and hoping for the best," McInturff said. "I'm hoping this will open some doors for the kids."

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