DEER — The Deer/Mt. Judea School District Board of Education was asked where it wants the school district to go from here.

The board met in regular monthly session Monday night. At the end of the meeting Superintendent Dr. Andrew Curry asked what areas the board wants him to work on for the future growth of the district.

The school district weathered a falling enrollment and a reduction in force by implementing a digital learning program that has the potential of changing the direction of education in the school district.

Curry said some people want the school district to go back to being what it was, a small, traditional, rural school, but that is not likely to happen.

A look at the enrollment at both campuses the last few years shows a falling trend: 2017-18, Deer enrollment, 217, Mt. Judea, 116; 2018-19, Deer enrollment, 178, Mt. Judea, 116 and 2019-20, Deer enrollment 168, Mt. Judea 105.

That's a total loss of 58 students. Each student represents a loss of state funding in the amount of about $9,000. That's a total loss of $522,000.

To offset those losses the Digital Learning Program, offered primarily to home schooled students, has attracted 130 students.

The enrollment report notes that the 2019-20 preliminary enrollment shows 403 students this year, but numbers will fluctuate.

Last month, the school board heard from Lindsey Graham, the program's director.

Graham said she and Curry scheduled a meeting with an influencer with home school families in Northwest Arkansas. The question they wanted to ask is if the school district can tap into that pool of students. The district is at a pivotal point, she said. "We have the option of going into Northwest Arkansas and staying on the cutting edge of this free new program and continuing to be the best in the state where it stands now."

She asked the board if it was interested in proceeding. "This could double, triple or quadruple our program," Graham said. "It could explode."

Graham comes from a home-schooling background and is a member of a local consortium of home school families. That background has helped her recruit students to the school district's digital learning program and serve as the support person for them. The school district has gradually added personnel under Graham.

Should the program expand, more resources will be needed, Graham warned the board. "Time, energy and more money will pay off tremendously in that we could potentially have 500 students in our digital learning program."

The other option is to keep the program where it is. The program has maxed out in this area, she said. In order to grow more staff is needed, specifically a teacher for elementary K-4 and a middle school teacher. She said she would take an extra teacher this year if enrollment is down and a teacher is available.

Curry told board members that multiple school districts have contacted him about the Digital Learning Program. They have tried to get a similar program off the ground, but without much success, he said. He credited Graham for the accomplishments the school district has had in this area.

Curry said on Monday that for the program to accelerate, the school district may have to open a digital learning center, or centers, off campus, perhaps in a more centralized location such as in Harrison.

Such a center would give digital students access to the same resources, special education courses, therapy services and even extracurricular activities they would have access to on the Deer and Mt. Judea campuses. They would not have to travel so far, however, making the program more enticing.

Again, Curry asked the board where they want him to focus his time and energy.

Board member Sharon Pierce said the school district should focus on educating children. She is not so concerned with the method. As long as children can read, they can go on to do anything, she said.

Other board members sat silently.

Curry suggested the board survey school staff, patrons and members of the community. The survey could be developed and distributed online, he said.

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