A Modern School District
Virtual Learning Meets The Traditional Classroom
by Dr. Rod Berger
Midway between Philadelphia and Harrisburg in Pennsylvania is the Ephrata School District, a region where Dr. Brian Troop has served as superintendent since 2013. In the time since taking hold of his position as the lead administrator, Brian has managed to push his district ahead with some very innovative and progressive initiatives.
The district has a virtual schools program which lets students learn what they are passionate about at a comfortable pace. They still provide traditional schooling, but many students prefer a blend of virtual and classroom courses, choosing to attend actual classes in subjects they feel would be helped by human interaction. Students have the option to take virtual classes remotely or at school, where they can receive guidance from learning coaches.
The progressive leadership at Ephrata School District is propelling the district into the future. In many respects, it’s a future education blueprint that other districts across the country could benefit in knowing.
Dr. Rod Berger: Brian, we were talking about the construction of your district. I want to start there because it’s interesting the ways in which districts are configuring themselves in a day and age where there is technology that can expand the opportunity for their communities.
You were talking about a virtual academy that you have within your district. Tell me about how that came about and the response from your students and the great community at large.
Dr. Brian Troop: We have a virtual academy that has two different branches. One is just a parallel program to our brick-and-mortar program which is an online virtual academy.
The original purpose was to help defray the cost of the cyber charter situation in Pennsylvania where we’re paying our per-student expenditures to the cyber charters. So it was first created to help stop the bleeding, so to speak, of the fiscal resources that were going out the door when students left.
Since then, we’ve made improvements to that and offered more flexibility, and a lot of the desirable features of our brick and mortar were able to be incorporated into that virtual program. We now have students who spend part of their day on-site working with a learning coach in virtual classes. We have students who spend part of the day taking part in face-to-face classes like third period they’ll take German because they want to take that live, or they take biology because they want a hands-on lab. They’ll do the rest of their day in a virtual environment either on-site or at home.
Our mission is really to make an environment that’s engaging and inspiring to all students, and we know that a seven-and-a-half-hour day in a brick-and-mortar setting isn’t the best to inspire all students.
RB: Brian, you mentioned earlier that you have a K-4. I’m interested in conversations I’ve been having recently with district leaders around the maturity of the technology sector in the ways they’re looking at younger students and the teachers who work with younger students in providing solutions and innovations that are more accurately built for the younger population in our schools.
How has that impacted your district? Have you seen that same trend as well?
BT: We have a lot of innovative teachers who are stretching our boundaries as far as using technology applications as well as the hardware itself to engage students. We have a good pre-K and early childhood program that’s an outreach into the homes of our community. We use technology to enable that.
We have an academy where parents can earn virtual credits by completing online activities that are aimed at improving the environment that our students are in before they are students. So it’s from birth to the age of five.
At the K-to-4 range, we’re pretty heavy into the iPad devices. We have a class set in every one of our classrooms that enables about half of the students in that classroom to be engaged through the technology at a time.
We really wanted to leverage that technology and the interactive apps that are out there for education so that when teachers are doing small-group instruction in reading or math while other kids are independently learning, they can engage at their level through those devices.
It wasn’t to replace the teacher. When we first started to say, “Hey, we’re going to put more technology in students’ hands than in teachers’ hands,” teachers and some parents were concerned: “Hey, we want that face-to-face time with your trained professional.”
We know that’s our most valuable resource ─ our teacher in every classroom. We’re trying to leverage the technology to make better use of the time when kids aren’t with the teacher in a small group or an independent instructional setting.
RB: You hit on a couple of topics there, Brian, which is the broader marketing message that a superintendent has to think about when you’re rolling out everything from technology to new programs to challenging topics as well.
How has that changed in your role as superintendent ─ the marketing message in the role you have to play in speaking to the community?
BT: Certainly, we have a team approach to telling our story. We start with a lot of communication. We try to over-communicate what’s happening within the district through board meetings, through social media, through formal media, and through our website as well.
We try to over-communicate that because we know that to have a relationship, we first have to build communication. So we’re trying to have a good trusting relationship with our community and our parents. They’re entrusting us with their most valuable assets ─ their children ─ and we’re trying to provide a return on that trust by communicating, building relationships, and making sure they know why we’re making changes or doing things differently than what they’ve experienced as students. We think it’s important that they understand why and not just what we’re doing.
RB: How do you take that approach and apply that to student ownership of learning? Global education is looking at students taking ownership of that learning with all the adults in the room figuring out the best ways to be able to document it and to provide an environment where the student is free to fail or to experience what that is like.
How do you look at the student ownership of learning and building that awareness at the teacher level? I would think that there’s a hand-off approach, sometimes, when we see students taking that ownership so that they can feel that growth themselves.
BT: That’s a real challenge and I think when we try to peel it back to why it’s such a challenge, we believe that the issue of control is really at the heart of it. We tend to be to emulate what we experienced as students. And the teacher who was controlling the classroom and the activities, and the content was the dispenser of that knowledge.
We are really to blame for our own situation because when you think about the faculty meetings and what administrators do within service days, we treat our teachers, by and large, the same way that our teachers treat our students.
We took that as an authentic leadership challenge ─ to be able to say, “If we want teachers to do differently for kids in classrooms, we need to do differently for teachers at training and how we manage them.
So we’re trying to promote a culture of trust and of risk taking. We need to have teachers feel that first before they can emulate it for their kids ─ encouraging those failures when you fall forward, and provide safe opportunities to share that learning experience with colleagues and reflect together so that we can come back at it more informed and better the next time.
That’s exactly what we want for our students. We continuously put teachers in the driver’s seat so that they can select their own learning path, their own learning venue, and their own content that they believe they need further training on, providing it’s within certain boundaries that we have as a district. And we encourage them to do that for students as well.
We all know that we have things that we’re passionate about, that we have had courses or learned about on our own independently.
And we have had things where we were forced to learn. We did the assignment, but not because it was an interesting assignment or because it was particularly engaging or something we’re passionate about. We’ve had the experience where we were made to comply with an assignment because it was a grade in the class that we didn’t find relevance in.
And we know which one was better. We know which one we remember more from. We know which one we were treated more as a human being and respected in. So we’re just trying to create those situations for our adults and encourage them to create them for our students.
RB: You mentioned one word in there. You mentioned “compliance” or “being compliant.” One of the issues that seem to be facing districts of all shapes and sizes is funding and alternative funding resources and how to incorporate the private sector into the daily operations of a school district.
How has your district looked at that? Do you find that you have more flexibility because you’re on the smaller side of districts and you’re not in a major metropolitan area or are there challenges that we don’t know about in the general public that we should be aware of?
BT: I think we’re in a fortunate situation with the size of our district and the community that we serve. We’re able to more readily communicate successes and address why we need funding, why we’re going one to one, why this is a good investment for student learning not just for now but for their future.
We’re able to communicate that because we have a nice-sized community. But it’s all about educating the board on the options that are there and letting them make decisions representing the community. That’s why they were elected.
We’ve been fortunate in our community to not have a whole lot of opposition to the direction we’re heading. Our community is pretty aware that the targets from yesterday of an industrial era are no longer relevant. We have a significant awareness of the need for STEM and computer science areas that we are relatively weak in preparing for.
If you look at what the job market demands are and what we’re producing and we’re required to assess from our state and federal government, they don’t align and it costs money to go above and beyond that. Our community gets that and supports us in it.
RB: Let’s talk personally as we close, Brian. What is the moral of your personal education journey that has gotten you to this position that we can learn from?
BT: I think everyone’s responsibility in life really is to find ways that they can put the talents, gifts, skills, and energy that they have to work to better the situation for fellow humans.
I’ve been on a journey where I started as a coach, then in a classroom, as a principal, as a consultant, as an assistant superintendent, and now a superintendent.
I’ve been fortunate enough to find larger and larger roles to be able to play out what I think my responsibility on earth is. It’s to impact others and make the world a better place for those around.
About Dr. Brian Troop
Dr. Brian Troop became Superintendent of the Ephrata Area School District in July 2013. He served the District as Assistant Superintendent from January 2011 through June 2013.
He earned a Bachelor of Science Degree from Millersville University, a Master of Science Degree in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from University of Memphis, and a Doctorate in Educational Administration from Immaculata University.
Follow Brian Troop on Twitter.
This article was originally published on Huffington post by Dr. Rod Berger’
- Wisconsin State Journal – Charter, virtual schools could expand statewide under Senate GOP budget
- WTVY – Changes made to DCS virtual school program benefit students
- The Outlook – Online education programs offer virtual school alternatives