The mission of Gem Prep Online is to “prepare students for success in college by providing a high-quality, personalized, relevant, and rigorous education through exceptional teaching, innovative uses of technology, and partnerships with families. Gem Prep Online’s program provides families with the ability for their students to grow from kindergarten through high school and complete a two-year college degree upon graduation.”


Gem Prep Online students reside across the state of Idaho. A total of 12.4 percent of students identify as Latine, and 1.3 percent identify as Black or African American. Around eight percent of students receive special education services, and two percent are classified as English learners. Around 33 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch.

    Experience Overview

    Gem Prep Online (GPO) is a free, virtual K-12 public charter school serving Idaho students with a focus on both academic preparation and the development of essential competencies (e.g., time management, goal setting, communication skills). Established in 2004, GPO was the first statewide virtual school in the Gem Prep charter network, which has since expanded to include five new brick-and-mortar schools across the state.

    One unique aspect of Gem Prep Online is their approach to college readiness and greater postsecondary success. GPO offers two graduation pathways: students can earn over 18 college credits while in high school to kick off their college journey, or they can graduate high school with a two-year associate degree. The college credits that students earn are tuition-free, helping students save thousands of dollars on college tuition while still in high school. For students pursuing an associate degree, they begin taking high school courses while in middle school to complete the program requirements in time.

    GPO students who live near one of the brick-and-mortar schools in the Gem Prep network can choose to take part in some traditional school activities (e.g., extracurricular activities, school pictures, field trips) or even take a class face-to-face on campus. The network also maintains four regional resource centers across the state, which offer wraparound services for families as well as extra support and tutoring for students who may need it (including students with individualized education plans or 504 plans).

    Learning In Action

    A student’s schedule is more structured in the early elementary grades, and more ownership is released to students as they move up in grade levels. The school requires a parent or guardian to be at home and support their child during school hours, so the parent-school relationship is crucial to a successful academic career. The family’s role transitions from primary learning instructor in elementary school to more of a coaching role when students move to the middle and high school grade levels.

    Students are required to attend two to three live online lessons per week, as well as intervention lessons if necessary. All students take four core classes and have access to a variety of electives such as physical education, health, art, and music, among others. They have flexibility in their schedule to complete the rest of their coursework independently.

    Most juniors and seniors enroll in college-level courses (either online or in person at a college campus) so they don’t take as many classes at GPO as other students. The school partners with multiple local universities and community colleges in Idaho to allow their students to earn college credits. GPO’s curriculum is aligned to the state’s general education college requirements, called General Education Matriculation (“GEM,” unrelated to Gem Prep), most of which are intro-level classes (e.g., English 101).

    By completing these general requirements, students can pursue their major immediately after graduating high school or can complete an associate degree to prepare for a career or vocation. If students are interested in taking a course at a local college campus, they must first pass an online college class to demonstrate readiness for college-level, in-person instruction. Additionally, seniors are required to complete a senior project course (required by the state) through GPO.

    Teaching In Action

    Teachers lead several live lessons per week alongside targeted intervention classes and one-to-one support. Teachers also work closely with families and take the time to get to know each of them and their unique dynamics, along with each student’s learning preferences and needs. Each month, teachers meet virtually with families and students to conduct data meetings, discuss student progress, set goals, and determine whether the student needs additional intervention time or tutoring.

    All teachers at Gem Prep Online maintain consistency around instructional practices, deadlines for submitting work, minimum pacing guidelines, and how students move through the curriculum. These consistent practices help students develop essential competencies around managing their time, setting goals, and communicating. The teaching staff also incorporates the concept of “shift the lift,” in which teachers spend only about 20 percent of class time delivering content while the remaining 80 percent is dedicated to students engaged in collaboration, discussion, and demonstrating their understanding.

    Although teachers are leading virtual instruction, they are required to come to one of the in-person Gem Prep resource centers a few times per week to connect with their peers, plan together, problem-solve, and build a sense of community. For example, students are excused at 1:00 pm each Wednesday so teachers have three hours to attend professional development and plan together in grade level/content area teams across the network. During this time they may review student work, discuss possible lesson misconceptions, and make action plans based on student data and work samples. All teachers are also required to attend in-person training at one of the network’s brick-and-mortar schools prior to the start of the school year to build community and culture.

    Associated Resources

    The strategies below explore some of the best practices used by Gem Prep Online, which can be replicated, adapted, and implemented across different school settings.

    The following artifacts from Gem Prep Online provide illustrative examples of what their teaching and learning strategies look like in action.

    Conditions for Success

    • Learning Materials & Tools: The school has well-aligned resources across their network, including online and brick-and-mortar schools, that have been developed and refined over the past 15 years since the school’s inception. They have a list of approved curriculum providers that all schools in the network follow.

    • Professional Development & Learning: Despite being a virtual school, GPO requires teachers to come to their in-person resource centers to facilitate professional development as well as informal learning that occurs with common planning time, problem-solving, and more.

    • Student Support Programming: The school partners with numerous local universities and colleges in Idaho to offer all high school students the opportunity to complete at least 18 college credits or earn an associate degree by the time they graduate.

    • Community & Culture: GPO requires a parent or guardian to be at home to support their child during school hours. The teaching staff works closely with students and their families to build a strong relationship in which all stakeholders are involved and informed, and they collaborate to support students towards academic success. The teaching staff members hold monthly data meetings with families and students to set goals and monitor progress.

    • Technology & Data Infrastructure: The school uses Canvas as their learning management system (LMS) to share coursework, lessons, and discussions. They have set up a robust infrastructure to support the online and brick-and-mortar schools, which were able to pivot quickly to online learning during the pandemic due to the strong foundation that GPO had already set.

    • Physical Environment: The school network has four in-person resource centers across the state – one in each quadrant of the state – which offer wraparound services for families as well as extra support and remediation for students who may need it (e.g., special education services). Three of these resource centers are conveniently located in the network’s brick-and-mortar school buildings, which offer virtual students the opportunity to come take a class face-to-face, engage in sports and clubs, or participate in activities such as field trips or school pictures.

    • Talent Systems: The school usually hires experienced teachers, specifically ones who have a demonstrated track record of moving the needle academically for students. Strong instructional practices and the ability to connect with families are prioritized more than technical skills, which can easily be taught. All teachers are required to come to the in-person resource centers to collaborate, plan, and receive training with the rest of the teaching staff, which has led to stronger development, instruction, and community. Administrators credit this for the very low turnover rate among staff.

    • Communications: The school continuously communicates with families and students, starting when a child enrolls, when parents are asked to attend a face-to-face information session and complete onboarding modules in the LMS. During the year, they meet virtually on a monthly basis to discuss student data, and families are continuously kept in the loop about their student’s progress and learning plan.

    • Time: The school offers flexible scheduling for students, through which students can decide when and how they would like to complete independent coursework outside of live lessons. All coursework is due each week by Friday at 11:59 PM, so students have autonomy to determine their work schedule each week.

    Other Key Highlights

    Many students at Gem Prep Online like to take advantage of local private instruction, such as taking music or swimming lessons, participating in robotics clubs or math clubs, attending a ballet or fine arts performance, or visiting museums, for example. The school provides $300 per student each semester for these types of extracurricular activities.

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