Education changes lives. Yet for a multitude of reasons, not all students have equal access to quality learning. It is a challenge that former Utah State Senator Howard Stephenson has been working to solve for 20-plus years. Recently, with the support of the Utah Legislature and groups like the Utah Private Schools Association, he has made some great strides. The most recent – and most notable – comes from what some may consider an unlikely source: a series of partnerships between Utah schools and ASU Prep Digital, an accredited online K-12 school based in neighboring Arizona.
Utah Education Landscape
Stephenson, who graduated with a class of 22 students from a small rural high school located three miles south of the Utah/Arizona border, recalls taking TEMAC Programmed Learning Material courses by correspondence – an experience he describes as “painful” – to complete coursework to make himself stand out to college admissions committees. That was decades ago, a far cry from the level of competition that today’s students encounter.
“We encourage kids to dream big, and to reach for the stars,” Stephenson said. “But then on the other hand, in so many parts of the country, we fall woefully short on giving them the right tools, and more specifically, the best curriculum, they need to compete and succeed. This is where a program of ASU Prep Digital’s caliber makes all the difference. It works exactly as the Statewide Online Education Program was intended, giving students the chance to take world-class courses in a way that best fits their needs.”
In 2011, Stephenson championed the Statewide Online Education Program, which was originally passed to increase access to quality, individualized online learning options for students attending public schools. Two years later, the program was amended to include funding for homeschool and private school students.
Partnering for Opportunity
Stephenson is the first to acknowledge that his role in bringing greater opportunities to Utah students is not a solo act. Dr. Galey Colosimo, Principal of Juan Diego Catholic High School in Draper, and Executive Director of the Utah Private Schools Association, also plays a pivotal role in Utah’s education community.
Upon learning that private schools, like Juan Diego, and smaller rural schools could participate in the Statewide Online Education Program, Colosimo began forging relationships – first with the nearby Canyons School District and more recently with the Juab School District – to formulate more partnerships with ASU Prep Digital.
“We simply could not have embraced online education without the help and support of Canyons and Juab School District,” said Colosimo. “Our partnership with ASU Prep Digital brought us a world-class online curriculum and professional training for our teachers that has made all the difference. At Juan Diego, every class is now a blended online learning class.”
Designated by the Utah State Office of Education as an approved online provider participating in the State Online Education Program, ASU Prep Digital is an accredited online K-12 school that allows students to take a single online course or enroll in a full-time, diploma-granting program. Started by Arizona State University, ASU Prep Digital also serves private schools, single public schools, and entire districts nationwide, with innovative partnerships that offer a rigorous K-12 curriculum and one-on-one instruction in a virtual environment. For schools like Juan Diego, ASU Prep Digital gives students an edge in preparation for college and access to advanced coursework in their areas of interest.
Through its partnerships, Juan Diego provides the “in-class” portion of the content and the teacher for the class itself. In many ways, the blended-learning online classes look and feel like other classes offered at Juan Diego. Even so, the whole-classroom model is a unique but effective application of ASU Prep Digital’s curriculum, which historically has served individual students or groups of students outside the traditional classroom.
For Juan Diego’s part, there are differences, as well. Unlike a traditional course, students have 24-hour virtual access to the learning materials (handouts, interactive presentations, quizzes, test-preps, etc.) with faculty present (in the classroom and online) to develop, guide and provide a digital dialog with students as they progress through the rigorous coursework. They also benefit from access to highly supportive Learning Success Coaches at ASU Prep Digital, who bring a level of personal attention and encouragement that is impractical in most traditional school settings.
To complement the blended course model, Juan Diego also offers concurrent courses through ASU Prep Digital, giving students the opportunity to earn college credits that will transfer to most accredited universities. These courses are taught collaboratively by an ASU college professor and Juan Diego teacher, students from the most recent semester averaged a 96% pass rate on the courses they took with ASU Prep Digital.
Arizona State University President Michael Crow is known as a pioneer of online education. Years before the pandemic forced schools and universities to move online, Crow had created a tech-enhanced learning environment at ASU. His decision to begin offering classes online came from the realization that many students with potential were not able to get the opportunity to pursue higher education. He wanted to include a more diverse group of students cutting across age, culture, socioeconomic status, and nationality. Online education presented a new path to achieve that goal.
“ASU Prep Digital has allowed us to partner and advance educational opportunities for thousands of K-12 students who might not have otherwise had access to the courses, credits, mentors, and teachers we offer,” Crow said. “The tenacity these champions of education have shown in melding our curriculum and resources with local Utah schools is a model for the rest of the state and the nation, for that matter.”
With Juan Diego’s success as inspiration, Canyons School District’s board, through the leadership of Superintendent Rick Robins, recently voted in favor of establishing its own partnership with ASU Prep Digital. The partnership will launch for the 2021-22 school year, with nearly 3,000 students participating in courses like algebra, biology, chemistry, geometry, and more.
Meanwhile ASU Prep Digital’s Private School Partnership in Utah continues to grow, as well, expanding curriculum throughout the Diocese of Salt Lake’s 19-school system.
Coming Full Circle
When Senator Stephenson championed the Statewide Online Education Program in Utah in 2011, he could hardly anticipate how close to home the program would ultimately hit. Today, four of his grandchildren have utilized the program in Utah through ASU Prep Digital partnerships; one is currently enrolled as a full-time ASU Prep Digital high school student. (Although his granddaughter, Jayda, is a full-time ASU Prep Digital high school student, she still swims for her local high school team and attended junior prom this year, thanks to legislation that was passed years ago to make such inclusiveness possible.)
“The successful partnerships ASU Prep Digital has forged in Utah are proof that with perseverance, and a variety of resources, we can give our students all of the resources and tools they need to succeed,” said Stephenson, who now serves as an advisor to ASU Prep Digital. “With forward-thinking leadership and technology advancements, there really are no boundaries to the opportunities we can provide to Utah students.”
ASU Prep Digital has established partnerships with 21 schools in Utah and 138 in other U.S. states. For more background about its customized partnerships with schools in Utah and across the nation, click here: asuprepdigital.org/partnerships.