South Dakota tests program that'll pay kids to learn

Rita VanKirk is a Junior at Parker High School
Rita VanKirk is considering taking three Advanced Placement classes online as a senior.
Cara Hetland

Advanced Placement classes are rigorous college level courses taught in high school. The South Dakota program, called Learning Power, pays for the classes and the students who pass the final test get paid a $100 bonus. The online teachers also get $100 for each student that passes.

Jim Parry oversees the program. He said the goal is to get more kids interested in math, science and English.

Parry said there is a need in South Dakota -- an abandoned gold mine in Lead will become a national underground science laboratory, and a Sioux Falls hospital announced it will add thousands of research jobs over the next 10 years. Parry added there is also a shortage of nurses and teachers in the state.

Tracey Olson, Superintendent in Parker, S.D.
Tracey Olson, superintendent in Parker, S.D. said kids from rural schools are often at a disadvantage when they get to college.
Cara Hetland

"If we just increased the overall number of kids getting more invested in math and science, I'm optimistic that some of them would choose teaching careers," Parry said. "I'm optimistic we'll help ourselves, as well as business and industry and communities."

No one tracks how many students take AP classes in rural areas, but Parry said he expects a big increase next year. He said the results from South Dakota could push other rural states to offer a similar program.

David Owen, director of the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce, said many businesses have a hard time finding qualified workers. He said a greater emphasis on math and science will benefit kids no matter what they want to do.

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"I think what we need to do is show kids how math relates to everything they're doing," Owen said. "How critical thinking, deductive reasoning, how really being able to look at a problem in a 360-degree stream of thinking will help them, regardless of what their passions are."

Rita VanKirk said she doesn't really know what her passions are. She's a junior at Parker High School, and like most 17-year-olds, she is involved in many activities.

"It's very doable. We have intelligent kids in the state of South Dakota."

"FCCLA, quiz bowl, oral interp., one-act play, all-school play, National Honor Society. I think that's it," VanKirk said.

Parker High School, located about 40 miles southwest of Sioux Falls, is considered a rural school. Course offerings are limited for the 120 high school students.

VanKirk said she is excited about a chance to take college courses online from home. She is considering taking three AP classes, in addition to her regular class load as a senior next year.

"I just don't want to set anything in stone until I see my schedule because I don't want any conflicts. Because they are set in certain times, because I want to make sure I can take my high school classes," VanKirk said.

VanKirk and her fellow classmates have laptop computers they can take home as part of another state initiative to get computers to all rural schools.

Superintendent Tracey Olson said students like VanKirk will be able to bring their online AP course work to school, but students without a laptop can only work from home.

Olson said she is not concerned about kids being overloaded with extra class work.

"It's very doable. We have intelligent kids in the state of South Dakota," Olson said. "They just need to prepare themselves in high school to pace themselves appropriately, and be prepared for the final test."

Olson said students from rural districts are prepared for college, but are often at a disadvantage compared to kids from larger schools.

She said the four-year pilot program is a good place to start, but she hopes more incentives are offered to students from smaller schools.