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Anoka­-Hennepin’s newest high school offers online learning and college credit

Anoka-­Hennepin School District will open a new public high school this fall for students throughout Minnesota. StepAhead Online High School has the twin advantages of providing a high school diploma from Minnesota's largest school district while also offering students the opportunity to earn free college credit as they complete their diploma requirements.

StepAhead opens to students in grades nine and 10 its first year. Grade 11 will be added in 2014 and grade 12 the following year. Grades nine and 10 will provide the rigorous foundation students need to be successful in college courses, which are primarily for grades 11 and 12.

Planning for StepAhead has been underway for more than a year. The idea for the new high school emerged from the district's experience with the online courses offered in the last several years to students attending the district's other high schools.

"We learned that students who do best with online courses are those who are motivated learners and who have the self­-discipline to keep up with their work," said Jeff McGonigal, associate superintendent for high schools. "It's not for every high school student, but is fabulous for those who want to work at their own pace or on their own schedule."

Students considering StepAhead can take a simple eight­-question self­-assessment to help them decide if online learning would be a good fit for them, available at:

"The biggest thing we have learned through our students' experience is that online education is truly rigorous and it takes real work on the part of the student," said Jessica Lipa, principal for StepAhead Online High School and the district's highly successful Secondary Technical Education Program (STEP) for high school juniors and seniors.

"Our goal is to have a very successful online program where students are provided the support they need to succeed, along with courses that meet the needs of the 21st century workforce."

For example, StepAhead will offer Advanced Placement Computer Programming and Mandarin Chinese, which is especially valuable for students who are considering careers in area such as international business or international relations. Students receive individualized support and 24/7 help from licensed guidance counselors.

In addition, beginning in 2014 StepAhead will be able to offer online a few of the career and technical courses offered at STEP, which is a high school program in a college setting for juniors and seniors who want to explore hands-­on careers with the opportunity of earning both high school and college credit. Lipa said many STEP courses are so popular that some students who want them can't get in because of space limitations.

McGonigal believes the online learning experience in itself is valuable. "Virtually every student entering college within the next few years will encounter online learning at some point in their college career," he said. "With StepAhead they get experience with it in high school with no tuition cost."

StepAhead Online High School is also a good option for families who are home­schooling their children. "Parents may want to continue providing the nurturing environment they have created at home, but they may not feel prepared to provide courses such as physics or calculus when their children reach grade 11 or 12. Also, they aren't able to provide college credit," said McGonigal. "And, earning a diploma from a reputable school district may make acceptance into college or getting a job easier."

StepAhead Online High School is one of a number of strategic investments the School Board approved last year that were made possible by a budget surplus resulting from closing schools several years ago and other spending efficiencies.

Anoka-­Hennepin's StepAhead Online High School received approval from the Minnesota Department of Education Aug. 7. More information is available at: