From Education Next:
There are no bells at Salt Lake City’s Innovations Early College High School, and no traditional “classes.” Students show up when they like, putting in six and a half hours at school between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. Working with a mentor teacher, students set their own goals and move through self-paced online lessons. They can take more time when they need it or move ahead quickly when they show mastery.Creation
The district designed Innovations to capitalize on “blended learning,” a mix of online and teacher-led instruction. Ken Grover, the school’s founder and principal, proposed a school that would put teenagers in charge of their own education. Innovations draws high, average and low achievers who crave that freedom.
While individualized online instruction has become prevalent in many high schools, it is mostly used as an add-on, to offer special classes like foreign languages or credit-recovery courses. As a major aspect of a school model, it is more readily associated with charter schools, such as Summit Public Schools and Rocketship in Silicon Valley.
In 2012, when Innovations was under development, the district was looking for ways to raise its graduation rate. Grover, who’d led a traditional Salt Lake City high school as well as the district’s career and technical programs, asked students what they liked and disliked about high school. What did they want?
They said they valued the relationships they’d made, and “even the learning,” but felt the school day was “structured to the needs of teachers and sports teams,” he said.
Plus, they reported, school was “boring.”
What did that mean?
Students said that if they didn’t understand something, they couldn’t get their questions answered right away. Teachers with a whole class to manage couldn’t slow the pace to deal with one student’s confusion.
For other students, the pace was too slow.
For someone who’s confused, or already knows the material, those 90-minute classes could be “painful,” Grover said. “I think it’s one of the primary reasons students walk away from school.”Who's in the school?
Among entering students, about 15 to 20 percent perform above grade level, about 15 to 20 percent below; the rest are in the middle, said Grover. Each student has an individualized education plan.
But not everyone thrives in a self-directed environment, at least not at first, said Andrew Calkins, deputy director of the Next Generation Learning Challenges initiative at Educause, which supports learning-technology innovations. (Innovations is not a grantee.) “We’re finding with our grantees that a third of students do very well in this model, a third will adapt in a semester, and the final third need a lot of help to make the transition,” he said.
To complete a class and earn credit, students must show 70 percent mastery of 100 percent of the content, and cannot progress to the next class until they do. In addition, they can return to classes they’ve finished if they want to improve their grades. A teacher will “reactivate” the subject and show what work students can do to raise a “C” to a “B,” or a “B” to an “A.
In other words, “you can’t get an F,” said Grover, the principal. You only can get more time.One big piece of this puzzle:
Innovations occupies the corner of an airy new building on the South City campus of Salt Lake Community College (SLCC), along with the district’s Career and Technical Center (CTC). The state reported that last year about 1 in 10 Innovations juniors and seniors took community-college classes and more than half took courses through the CTC, whose offerings range from computer programming and CD graphics to barbering and nail design. In addition, students may ride a shuttle bus to their local high school to participate in classes or extracurriculars, such as choir, band, foreign language, or sports.
As in Salt Lake City, “districts are starting to create lab schools to try personalized, student-centered strategies with hopes of finding what will transfer to traditional schools,” said Calkins of Educause. ESSA, he said, “hangs a big welcome banner for this kind of model . . . Thanks to ESSA, the pace of experimentation will pick up.”
ESSA includes the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant program, which is authorized at about $1.6 billion annually and can support blended learning. Probably the most critical piece is funding training for teachers so they can figure out how to use digital tools effectively.