As schools across the state prepare to start fresh, the Lakeville district is busy opening its own online school, the first of its kind in the south metro.

Though there are more than 25 online schools approved by the Minnesota Department of Education, LinK12 Lakeville is among a few full-time programs in the Twin Cities area offering an elementary school curriculum.

The district just received the go-ahead from the state in early August to open LinK12, after spending last year doing research and completing the application.

Superintendent Lisa Snyder said the district is "thrilled" to be designated a K-12 online school, since they weren't sure they'd be approved to offer a K-6 curriculum. Most of Minnesota's online schools are limited to grades 7-12 or 9-12, she said.

"I think one of the biggest things for us is it gives us another tool to achieve our vision of personalized learning and really flexible learning schedules for students in the future," she said. "So that's exciting."

About 80 students were enrolled as of last week, Snyder said, with 70 of them K-6 Somali students who will use the online curriculum to learn together at the newly formed Iqra School, held at an Islamic community center in south Minneapolis. The other 10 are secondary-level students from various kinds of schools.

The enrollment has already surpassed the district's initial goal of serving 25 to 50 students. Each enrolled student will receive a new Dell laptop.

The Somali school will have its own staff to help students with schoolwork, including Firdaus Aden, who will be the director. Many of its students have been home-schooled, with others attending private or public schools.

"The parents have been home-schooling on their own and had wished for a community get-together, but it was very hard," Aden said. "They are extremely thrilled and have pitched in, volunteering their time, supporting with funds … and offering any help available."

Another reason for starting the school is that Lakeville "would love to have a partnership" with some of the 600 home-schooled students living within district boundaries, Snyder said. An open house for home-schooling families was held Wednesday.

"Of course, from a financial standpoint, we're wanting to … turn around a trend of declining enrollment, or at least stabilize our enrollment," she said.

One major challenge has been that "this is late in the year for parents to be making [enrollment] decisions," said Emily McDonald, the district's coordinator of teaching and learning. She said she expects enrollment to continue growing, picking up second semester.

School at LinK12 will begin Sept. 5, two days later than at other Lakeville schools. The extra time will allow the district to finish hiring at least two — and possibly three — elementary school teachers. It will also bring in licensed secondary teachers to teach individual subjects like math and social studies. Some of them may be current Lakeville teachers who want to teach an online course in addition to their normal teaching load, said McDonald.

The district decided to purchase the school's curriculum from K12, a national vendor, instead of creating its own, which "would have been virtually impossible in the timeline we had," McDonald said.

During the year, district officials will be surveying families to see how things are going and making changes as needed, McDonald said. It will have parents and students complete online surveys and also make phone calls home.

Aden said she and other parents are a bit concerned about how long students will spend sitting at their laptops. They plan on "balancing the computer time with a lot of interactive and engaging classroom sessions … so the students don't feel isolated and just paired with a computer."

One myth of online learning is that students have to just stare at a screen all day, McDonald said. Elementary students in particular typically spend much of their time doing activities away from the computer, McDonald said.

Snyder said the most important thing to the Department of Education is that online learners are making progress, since they can't measure seat time. LinK12 will use assessments such as MCA scores, benchmark tests three times a year and tests built into the curriculum — to ensure students are learning, Snyder said.

Despite the tight timeline, Snyder said the district is on track to open LinK12.

"We really feel like we've learned from others," she said. "We're pretty much moving forward and on top of things."