Tuition-free online and charter school education is becoming more popular among public school students throughout the state, according to 2015-2016 fall enrollment figures the Colorado Department of Education released Thursday.
The Guided Online Academic Learning (G.O.A.L.) Academy, a statewide alternative school authorized by Falcon School District 49 and headquartered in Pueblo, gained the most students in the Pikes Peak region.
Enrollment is up by 811 students over last year, for a statewide total of 4,070.
The multi-district school has grown every year since its 2008 opening, said G.O.A.L. interim executive director Kris Enright.
But this year's giant gain was a surprise.
"We really didn't do any marketing and weren't anticipating the growth," he said. "Our growth reflects a statewide trend of students who are not being successful in their local high school and are in need of something different."
G.O.A.L. students take classes primarily online and go to one of 33 centers for assistance with school work and testing. Additional instructional staff, support staff and counselors were hired to meet the increased enrollment, Enright said.
Earlier this school year, the director and co-founder Ken Crowell was placed on administrative leave for unspecified reasons and resigned in October. The school board also terminated the services of his education consulting business, which had contracted with the school to provide finance, technology and human resources.
Enright said a search is underway to find a new executive director, and nothing's changed in the way of education at G.O.A.L.
"Online education in Colorado has seen steady growth going back more than a decade, with that growth and the responsibility of serving students, the expectations have increased as well," Enright said. "We welcome the opportunity to do a great job."
Statewide, online enrollment has increased 201 percent over the past 10 years. Now, 2.1 percent or 18,664 public school students are registered in online programs. That's a 9.4 percent increase from 2014.
Overall, more pupils are registering for public schools. Statewide, preschool through 12th grade pupil count for this school year increased by 10,105 students over 2014, for a total of 899,112 students.
El Paso County's 15 districts gained 1,676 students for a total of 118,707 students. Teller County's two districts are down 24 students this year, for a total of 2,855.
But local school districts that have had decreasing student count are flattening out, including Woodland Park School District RE-2. Changing demographics, loss of pupils to nearby districts or private schools and other factors have led RE-2 to shrink by 9.3 percent over the past five years. But this year, the district has three more students than last year.
"It's too early to identify it as a trend, but we're hopeful," said Brian Gustafson, director of business services.
Other districts that have been shedding students, including Calhan RJ-1, are not seeing as large of losses, and Miami-Yoder School District JT-60, which has seen an enrollment decrease of 8 percent in the past five years is up 4.7 percent this school year.
The Gazette's Maria St. Louis-Sanchez contributed to this report.