But is it really possible for a student to bond with an online teacher, to engage in that teacher-student dynamic so critical to effective learning? “Absolutely,” Veatch says. “Look, in a typical brick and mortar school with 30 kids in the classroom, how much individual attention can you give each student? In this process, you get to know these students.”

Citing confidentiality issues, Shields declines to provide the names of any Vilas Online students. But I ask around and find Anthony Zavala at his father’s auto repair shop on Main Street in Springfield. When I arrive, he’s talking to his grandmother on the telephone.

He’s bearded; his arms are lined with tattoos, and he has bright, black, piercing eyes that don’t look away when I ask questions. When I ask about Vilas Online, he perks up. During his senior year at Springfield High School, Zavala explains, his girlfriend got pregnant. He dropped out of school to work. Although his girlfriend lost the baby, he did not return to school.

In 2004, he says, a speech teacher from school, Jill Negrete, began pestering him to get his diploma. “I ended up taking classes online with Vilas,” he said. “I’d go to Ms. Negrete’s house three times a week. She was my mentor. She kept after me if I didn’t show up.”

Zavala is clearly grateful for Ms. Negrete’s persistence — and for Vilas Online. “Online schooling worked really well for me,” he says. “I never would have graduated if it weren’t for a program like Vilas.”

But Zavala is hardly the typical Vilas/Hope student. According to Shields, 43 percent of students who sign up with Vilas Online do not get a diploma. As even Shields acknowledges, “That’s not a good percentage.”

 

Since statehood, the Front Range has looked down its nose at its country cousins, watching smugly as the Eastern plains slowly lost power and standing. As Bill Hines says, “The mindset in the state of Colorado from the Front Range point of view is that anybody south of the Arkansas River is automatically 10 points lower in IQ.”

The folks of Vilas have long been sick of Denver calling the shots, educationally and otherwise. In desperate financial circumstances, the prairie populists of Vilas RE-5 used the knowledge they’d gleaned from a century of agriculture. In farming, if you don’t get bigger, you don’t survive. With its brick-and-mortar schools losing students and revenue, Vilas decided to get bigger — virtually.

There’s nothing wrong with the concept of economies of scale. But students were the currency at hand, not wheat or corn, and Vilas foundered in taking its online experience — gathered from rural towns and smaller cities — to an urban environment. Through Hope Academy, Vilas took on thousands of kids, many of them at-risk, and, according to the Colorado auditor, it served them badly.

But David Hakala, a Denver-based technology journalist who has chronicled the evolution of online education since 1988, says Hope and Vilas are two very different enterprises. They aren’t equally culpable, he says: “They are distinctly different operations. I think of Hope and Vilas as predator and prey, respectively.”

Initially, the Vilas online experiment seemed a recipe not just for survival, but for revival, both rural and urban. Indeed, the Hope Online Academy that Vilas sponsored has many testimonials in its favor, including one from the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver.

True, Vilas also saw Hope Academy as a major source of revenue, and a lot of money flowed into Vilas RE-5. But most of the money flowed right back out to Hope Academy, which had its own agendas, financial and political.

(What those agendas might be, precisely, remains an open question. When the Rocky Mountain News began its investigation, it discovered that the Foundation for Academic Innovation — a nonprofit with no phone number and no Web site, but with connections to those who support school vouchers and charter programs — has given or loaned Hope more than $3.7 million in the past two years.)

In various newspaper stories, Hope president Heather O’Mara has taken responsibility for Hope’s problems. Public relations spokesman Stephen Shapiro says the school knew of its difficulties and was already working on addressing them before the press accounts and state audit became public. But Hope seems to see itself as more of a business than an educational institution, despite the old saw that “you can’t run education like a business.” O’Mara, for example, has never spent a day as a teacher. She remains the president of a company, rather than a superintendent or principal.

In the meantime, Shapiro says, Hope has stopped opening learning centers, pending the fate of legislation currently before the Colorado Assembly. State Sen. Sue Windels, D-Arvada, a teacher, is leading the charge for reform of online schools. She is seeking to limit the independence of online programs and to create extensive state oversight of them. Shapiro doesn’t deny that Hope may sever its relationship with Vilas RE-5. “Given the pending legislation, Vilas and Hope are exploring all of their options,” he says.

Those with big-picture aspirations for online education see Vilas’ struggle as a painful but necessary part of growth in the field. John Watson was a consultant for the Trujillo Commission on Online Education, a group convened by the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation to examine the issues raised by Colorado’s state auditor.

Watson, author of Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning, acknowledges the current gulf in online education between the supplemental programs offered by urban schools and the complete educational systems offered out of rural schools. But he is convinced the split will end. The future of online education in the West, especially the rural West, looks very bright, he says.

“It has huge ramifications. In five years, a lot of these funding issues will have been worked out,” he says. “They will be seen as bumps in the road. There will be other, larger stories. In 10 to 15 years, online education will be quite common.” Back in Baca County, Shields is confident that Vilas RE-5 will survive, no matter what the state does — even if Vilas and Hope part ways. “I will change,” he says.

“We’ll do what we have to, to survive.”

Samuel Western writes from Sheridan, Wyoming, and is happy to see daffodils trying to grow next to the snowbank.