Creating a New School Doesn’t Take a Physical Redesign
It's not about classrooms that look like a coffee shop
by Cheryl Fenlason
When you think of an innovative school, your mind most likely goes to pristine school architecture, including classrooms that look more like coffee shops, modular or mobile furniture, loads of instructional technology, multiple informal learning spaces or huddle areas throughout the building, and more. These modern spaces are thought to inspire innovative teaching and soaring student outcomes.
However, what if you want inspiring pedagogy and amazing student outcomes, but don’t have the ability to create a state-of-the-art school building to house it? Poudre School District Global Academy (PGA) is a perfect example of inspired teaching and learning—and it was achieved without the need to build a new school.
PGA of the Past
When PGA opened in 2009, it was a totally virtual school that focused on students who struggled in a traditional brick-and-mortar setting. These struggles included learning disabilities, anxiety disorders or other mental health considerations, as well as unique scheduling needs. We started out with only 22 students, but between 2010 and 2013, PGA opened itself up to any student who needed or wanted a nontraditional education, including advanced and accelerated students.
As enrollment grew, we had to accommodate a variety of different student needs and skill levels. Because of this, the administration felt it was time to rethink the instructional model. Administration asked the question “is fully virtual the best solution for our students or is there another way to meet students’ needs for nontraditional education while better supporting them?”
Redesigning Our School: PGA Now
In 2014, PGA decided to move away from the fully virtual model to a blended model. Blended learning can mean a lot of things, but at PGA, it means there’s a blend between virtual schooling at home and onsite instruction in the classroom. While our classrooms may look traditional in design, our instruction is what makes PGA so innovative.
Students spend three days a week working through online courses at home and two days a week at school with their teachers and fellow students. Approximately 60 percent of all instruction for K–8 students is online and 80 percent of instruction is online for high school students. During these online work days, parents act as “learning coaches” by accessing online assignments, communicating with PGA teachers, and signing off on work their students have completed.
To help parents effectively support their child during virtual learning days, we created several training opportunities. In addition to successful learning coaches mentoring new families, parents participate in a Jump Start Week where they practice correspondence with their learning coach mentors and their child’s teachers, and they attend a half-day onsite orientation to overview policies and procedures. Learning coaches who have children in grades K–8 also have the option of attending a monthly learning coach academy.
The two days per week of onsite instruction typically include a variety of learning models. In addition to lectures or whole class instruction, teachers can differentiate instruction by grouping students based on needs and progress. Students who are excelling with a concept can work together on a project to explore the topic deeper and the teacher can work with those in need of extra support either in small groups or on a one-to-one basis. Students can also work on their online courses at school, which gives students the opportunity to receive mentoring from their teachers face-to-face and work with other students collaboratively.
Making it Work
In addition to deploying online course content, our school model requires time management skills from students, parents, and teachers, as well as the development of strong relationships between key stakeholders. There are six different relationships we foster, which we call our Six Pillars of Success.
Teacher-Teacher relationships: Teachers are usually on campus Tuesday through Friday. On Wednesdays, we host Student Support Team (SST) meetings to discuss individual students and brainstorm the best way to support and personalize learning for each student. On Fridays, we host professional development opportunities, additional SSTs, and grade-level collaboration. This emphasis on collaboration creates a professional learning community, where fellow teachers can problem solve and seek support and innovation.
Teacher-Parent relationships: Teachers and parents share a common goal: they want students to succeed. Teachers count on parents to help them understand their child and how he or she learns best, and the parents count on the teacher to be a content-area expert and mentor with wisdom to offer their child. Therefore, creating and sustaining this relationship is arguably the most important relationship the school fosters. Although the learning coach training opportunities are a great first step in creating this relationship, teachers and parents work daily to maintain it.
Teacher-Student relationships: Since a majority of instruction is conducted via online courses; teachers have more time to spend with students in individual or small group settings. Even though students are only in class two days per week, students and their teachers regularly communicate via email, text, or phone when they are not on campus. Both teachers and students cite this ability to develop meaningful relationships as a positive aspect of our school model.
Parent-Parent relationships: Acting as a learning coach is a big responsibility for parents. In addition to the learning coach mentoring program, parents have access to a Facebook group where they can ask questions and provide advice and support.
Parent-Student relationships: Because so much instruction is happening at the student’s pace off campus, the role of learning coach is necessary. PGA teachers and staff help parents adjust to the instructional model and understand the best way to “coach” their children. The level of support—and the tactics they use to support their child—will change as the child matures. K–8 students typically need more support and a different type of support than high school students.
Student-Student relationships: Although students are only on campus for two days per week, students form friendships just like brick and mortar school students. Students spend time with their peers during class and lunch, and they also have the opportunity to hang out at PGA community social events and outside of school. All K–12 students work together on projects in small groups and high school students also participate in a mentoring program where juniors and seniors are paired with younger students to meet on a regular basis.
Instructional Redesign’s Impact
The combination of a split week schedule, engaging online courses and on-site instruction, and meaningful relationships have been successful for PGA. We experienced an all-time high enrollment for the 2016–2017 school year with 194 students, which is maximum capacity for our facility. Our students’ standardized test scores are consistently higher than the state average, too. When we received our PARCC scores for English language arts and math in Spring 2016, our average scores for students in grades 3–9 were not only higher than the state average; they were higher than the Poudre School District average. Additionally, PGA won two major awards during the 2015–2016 school year. The Colorado Department of Education awarded PGA the John Irwin Schools of Excellence in Education Award for exceeding expectations in student achievement, and the Governor awarded us the Distinguished Improvement Award for exceeding expectations in academic growth.
Student achievement is important to PGA, of course, but we also believe that our students’ happiness with their choice to seek out a non-traditional instructional model is another sign of success.
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