Nyssa schools are expected to gain students from out of the area, drawn by a new virtual program that offers STEM-intensive coursework. (Enterprise file photo)

NYSSA – Someday, thousands of students from across Oregon could be attending Nyssa schools.

They’ll be Bulldogs in name and spirit but most won’t have a Nyssa address.

Those students would be part of an innovative approach to public education undertaken recently on a trial basis by the Nyssa School District.

The Nyssa School Board approved a pact with My Tech High to start with providing 24 students from kindergarten through fifth grade a personalized, online education.

The driving force behind the experiment is Ryan Hawkins, Nyssa assistant superintendent.

Hawkins explained in an interview that he became increasingly concerned with the education of students who remained at home despite schools opening up. They do so for health or family reasons, he said.

“I was looking for better options to give students,” Hawkins said.

That led him to Matt Bowman, founder of My Tech High.

Under Bowman’s concept, teachers work with parents and students to craft a STEM-focused school program that is done virtually.

“We prioritize technology and entrepreneurship in our program,” Bowman explained in a statement describing the program.

The program operates in seven states, including Idaho and Utah, and Nyssa would be its Oregon debut.

Bowman shared a presentation about the program with the school board in December.

“Nyssa School District will be viewed as an innovative leader all over the state, region, and country for providing educational equity, access, and personalized learning to ALL interested students in Oregon,” the presentation said.

“Students who learn best at home living all over the state of Oregon will enjoy being remotely enrolled in a Nyssa school,” it said.

That could mean a big future for the Nyssa school system, Hawkins explained.

My Tech provides teachers and nearly all elements of school. The operation splits state school revenue awarded per student, with Nyssa getting 40%.

“It could be very significant” for the Nyssa district, Hawkins explained.

He said the district could get an extra $3.8 million a year if enrollment hit 1,000. The Utah program has 7,000.

Hawkins said if Nyssa’s experiment succeeded, half the money would go to bonuses for teachers. The district might also pay a $1,000 bonus for employees who live in the district.

“This could really transform our district and our community,” he said.

School board members in December closely questioned school officials about the idea before approving a trial period through June.

Word spread quickly across Oregon, particularly among families who homeschool their children. The pilot operation opened for registration “and in the first four hours, we maxed out our cap. We have 42 waiting.”

No Nyssa students are part of the initial group of 24 because those attending remotely were already participating in the Baker Web Academy. Hawkins said those enrolling come from other places such as Hillsboro, Beaverton, and Tualatin. Three students are now active as My Tech High students while processing is underway to launch schooling for another 19.

If Nyssa throttles up to use the full program, students would go through the Nyssa school system and get their diploma from Nyssa High School, no matter where they lived.

“That’s pretty cool,” Hawkins said.

Some questions remain if the program takes off. Because of Nyssa’s household income level, all students qualify for free lunches. Hawkins said school officials are working to determine if Nyssa would lose funding to provide those meals if its virtual growth changed the income calculations.

He said Nyssa also gets extra money from the state because of its status as a small school. He said he’s working with state education authorities to determine if that would be at risk if the online enrollment was significant.

“We’re being really mindful about those impacts and taking this slow,” Hawkins said.

In a statement to the Enterprise, Bowman of My Tech High said “we look forward to helping students and families all over Oregon access a tuition-free, personalized education program which taps into the high-quality learning resources available.”

He said the company has operated for 14 years and now serves 20,000 students. That includes its technical prep program, which operates in five states. In Idaho, the Oneida School District in Malad City is hosting that program.

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