SPRINGFIELD, COLO. -- The man in the Sodbuster Bar walks with a slight limp, the result of old injury. “I was operating a seismograph rig when it went off a hillside outside Meteetsee, Wyo.,” he said. “It fell 382 feet with me inside. I wasn’t supposed to make it, but I did. I eventually got a settlement. Made a lot of lawyers rich in the process, though.”

Springfield is the seat of Baca County. Tucked away in the southeast corner of Colorado, the county is much more closely aligned, both in politics and soul, with Oklahoma or the Texas panhandle than with Denver. It’s flat, windy “tomorrow country,” as in, “OK, things are tough, but they’ll get better tomorrow.” It’s the kind of place where used farm equipment is a prized lawn ornament.

In 2004, Baca County ranked as one of the 50 poorest counties in the nation, both in adjusted gross income and in wages. It’s lost 10 percent of its population in the last decade, and its population is about to drop below 4,000. But like the man in the bar, the county is a survivor.

In fact, one of its school districts is doing more than surviving. Vilas RE-5 has the highest growth rate of any of Colorado’s 178 school districts. Its enrollment is up 405 percent since 2002. It had 3,800 students during the 2006-2007 school year. Most of these students, however, do not reside in Baca County, nor do they sit at desks in the Vilas school district. They live all over Colorado, but mostly around Denver, and many of them are low-performing, “at-risk” students. Thanks to Vilas, they attend high school online.

Until very recently, online teaching efforts in the West centered on programs that augmented normal high school coursework — advanced placement chemistry, for example — and were based in urban areas.

Such supplemental classes are the darlings of futurists who have big plans for online education. In March, Microsoft founder and educational philanthropist Bill Gates told Congress, “We do think that some of these technology things where you can go and get great courses over the Internet and have even rural areas sharing with each other — where one is very good at one thing and one is good at another thing — that those can be quite advantageous …”

Gates was answering a question about Vermont, but online schools in the Rocky Mountain West have pioneered in out-of-the-way places: The Idaho Distance Education Academy in Deary (population 512), for example, started in 2004 and now serves 1,160 students from every Idaho county.

In a similar reverse of standard educational dynamics, rural Vilas District RE-5 now serves thousands of urban students, offering a full range of courses. Vilas RE-5 actually runs three separate schools: Vilas School, Vilas Online School, and a charter school authorized by Vilas, Hope Co-op Online Learning Academy.

Hope, which is headquartered in Centennial, Colo., offers what’s called a hybrid, a curriculum that combines online and face-to-face delivery at 81 “learning centers,” scattered mostly along the Front Range. The hybrid’s popular.

As the state auditor noted in December, Colorado has experienced a surge of online education, with “students from large Front Range school districts enrolling in online schools that were established by small, rural districts such as Vilas and Branson (in Animas County).” Because Colorado funds its school districts based, in part, on the number of students they teach, this online surge has transferred state money from urban schools to Vilas and Hope Academy.

Last year alone, Denver Public Schools lost 600 students and more than $4 million in state funding to Hope and Vilas. But why are urban students flocking to these rural online schools? The answer to that question revolves, at least in part, around the rise of standardized testing, as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act and similar state laws that penalize school districts that fail to meet educational standards. And it’s an answer that makes some educational professionals squirm.

The students making the switch to online are, by and large, poor performers on standardized tests. When these so-called “at-risk” students transfer from a large urban school district to an online school, they take their bad test scores with them. Denver and other large school districts deny they encourage at-risk students to go to online schools simply to improve the district’s showing on standardized tests.

But Vilas school officials have a different view.

“No Child Left Behind is a big driver in our growth,” Vilas superintendent Joe Shields says flatly.

“We’re getting calls from districts,” Vilas school board president Dennis Thompson says. “They phone us up and ask us to take a certain student. But they won’t admit that.”

Some observers view the urban-rural online shift as temporary and benign, or even positive. “What you’re seeing is a shortcoming of the larger, physical urban school,” says Jared Polis, founder of the Polis Foundation, which supports education, technology and community throughout Colorado.

“Smaller districts can act entrepreneurially,” Polis says. “They provide new options, gearing their classes around an urban student’s busy life. Some students work; some have children.” Polis says that larger schools are “much slower at evolving,” although he believes they will eventually catch up.

But the state audit of Vilas raises troubling questions about online education, not just in Colorado, but across the nation. The auditor’s report pounded Vilas and Hope Academy for poor accounting, low test scores and unlicensed teachers. It also accused Vilas and Hope of blurring the separation of church and state, by using public funds to hold classes in church schools.

Many rural school districts seem locked in permanent decline, with ever-smaller enrollments translating into less and less state and federal funding. The Vilas district has fought the trend with entrepreneurial flair.