Blended Learning; A Key Element for Student Success in the Alternative Program Setting
By: Kelly Storms, NLCS Administrator, Gateway Academy Director
North Lawrence Community Schools (NLCS) is finding success with blended learning. With the creation of Gateway Academy, an alternative approach, NLCS has developed ways in which to better meet the needs of those students who were not engaging well in a traditional school setting approach.
North Lawrence Community Schools has set out to find a way to encourage struggling students while also finding district success in the form of decreased exclusion discipline. The immediate answer was to offer alternative approaches to discipline, student engagement, and learning environments. From those discussions, Gateway Academy was created. While the academy is an alternative approach, it does differ from a typical alternative school in some ways. The goal of the district initially was to simply, “keep kids in school.” The statement, “Exclusion is not Intervention,” seemed to rise to the forefront of the early conversations. Targeted student populations that were settled on include high school students in need of credit recovery, middle school, and high school students that are unable to engage due to medical or social-emotional issues, and middle school and high school students that are being faced with exclusion due to behaviors. With programming details worked out and staff put into place, Gateway Academy was officially offered to NLCS students in August 2019.
After only one year in operation, Gateway Academy is proving to be highly beneficial to the community. Placing individual student success at the very top of the list of priorities, academy staff have developed effective programming, and students are achieving. A blended learning format has become a key element in our success. Our version of blended learning ranges from the formal definition of blended learning to what one might refer to as hybrid models using instructional strategies that enhance student academic achievement, motivation, and increase self-confidence. The academy serves students in grades 6-12 that are referred by their building principal.
Student Populations finding Success
NLCS is finding that several high school students who are falling behind in credits and lacking motivation can achieve when their academic requirements are approached a bit differently. By offering an academic schedule that allows for student pacing, ownership, high-interest courses, and support, we are seeing increased success. Gateway Academy students actively enrolled in our district high school are given the opportunity to work with online courses during the school day in order to regain lost credits needed for graduation. While we customize each student’s plan for what they need to meet graduation requirements, most will attend the academy half-day and the district’s high school campus for half day. What is unique about this approach is that we can apply blended learning strategies to increase students’ engagement and motivation. Prior to this unique approach, our credit recovery was often the sole responsibility of the student working on their own through online courses. At the academy, teaching staff provides individual, small group, and whole group lessons supplementing the online course with a personal touch and more traditional feel. For example, academy staff will schedule a day to provide an Algebra lesson to all that are enrolled in Algebra and then continue by assisting individual students. Another example is the additional support provided for courses that students are attending in the traditional setting at our high school or career center. Gateway Academy staff are in communication with our student’s traditional-setting teachers. With this collaboration, we are able to provide tutoring, classwork assistance or additional re-teaching sessions, one-on-one or in small group settings. This approach seems to be appreciated by students. They feel empowered and have greater confidence because they are caught up with classwork and, in most cases, are working now to maintain a passing grade rather than feeling anxious about raising a failing grade in a course. Students are able to work through a course at their own pace but also have the support of teacher-guided lessons to enhance content knowledge, as well as individual support to deepen understanding.
One result of this approach that I had not initially considered is the change in response to the student by their HS teachers and the change in response to the teacher by the student. There seems to be, albeit based upon only one year of observation, a growing sense of mutual respect and regard for one another. Anyone that has spent time with adolescents knows just how empowering it can be to simply be treated like everyone else. Often, we see that those less motivated and less engaged in the course feel less respected by the teacher. While this may not be a true statement, the youth’s feelings are real. Once the youth feels a greater sense of belonging to the class, more a part of the group due to a passing grade or feeling more confident with the content, their demeanor changes. It is quite rewarding for our staff to see this evolve. It is a step in maturation that our students begin to apply in other areas and it translates into self-awareness and generally a more pleasant personality.
Alternative to Exclusion Discipline
At Gateway Academy, we also offer seats to those students that are facing exclusion from their school campus for a period of time. Instead of sending these youth out of the structured learning environment and home, NLCS is striving to offer continued learning in a different setting, away from their school campus. Due to the success we were seeing with our credit recovery students, this blended learning approach was implemented with this student population as well. It is proving to be very successful. The strategies described earlier are utilized daily with this population. We also provide breaks, physical fitness, and community involvement as a part of their daily programming.
During year one we are happy to announce many earned HS credits, completed classroom assignments, passing grades during excluded time, and countless hours given back to the community. I would also note that our staff has witnessed this group developing a greater self-confidence with calm demeanor. We noted on many occasions the use of simple manners in the community without being prompted, the initiative to ask for help in order to maintain good academic standing instead of falling behind, and an appreciation for the assistance Gateway staff offered. It was evident that once the student who had shown poor behavior could cease unwanted behaviors and be very appropriate once they were removed from whatever was distracting them at their school campus. The academy is less stimulating to the emotions. The facility is quiet, calm, and, compared to their school campus, much less populated.
The blended learning approach is very much a key element to the academic success of this group as well. Just knowing that they can work at their own pace with the online content while having individual support seems to be a huge comfort to these students. Some days, they just need to be left to their work, and we can allow that with the online format. Other days, they need to change it up, and we can offer opportunities for greater learning and application of skills with community involvement or other special programming. It works very well and truly is differentiation at its very best.
This student population is where I feel blended learning strategies are most needed. This may also prove to be our most rewarding endeavor at the academy. Unfortunately, society is being met with the demands of meeting the needs of youth who are not able to be placed successfully in a traditional school setting. Yet, many are simply enrolled in their district schools and placed in the most appropriate program available. Schools do a fantastic job of placing students in the best possible learning scenario, but so often the youth’s needs are beyond what the school or its staff is prepared to handle. As we all know, this leads to the need for school response to behaviors that are not appropriate–countless case conference meetings and brainstorming sessions, resulting in little change. It is heartbreaking that so many of these students ultimately withdraw from school or drop out.
NLCS is working diligently to find better ways to transition struggling youth back to traditional school. Students that have been removed from school cannot always step back into that environment of peers, rules, authority, and countless expectations with success. Often there needs to be a period of transition that can allow for a step down process back into a typical or traditional school day.
While we are still working to build this program, NLCS and Gateway Academy did work with several youth last school year for which blended learning styles in the alternative setting proved to be successful. Within this student population were those returning to our community from incarceration, residential treatment facilities, long-term medical care, home-schooling, and foster care to be reunified with family. The idea of a crowded school with literally too much coming at these students every minute of the school day is an overwhelming thought for them, their parents, and their service providers. The idea of using Gateway Academy as a transition back to school was formed. This is a population with extremely diverse needs. Differentiation in instruction is an absolute must.
All blended learning strategies already mentioned are being used with this group of students placed at Gateway Academy. We also strive to provide needed breaks, emotional support, SEL, soft skills training, community engagement, and high-interest opportunities for each student. Having ownership in their own learning with much needed support seems to also be working for this most challenging group as well.
In closing, I would like to express my gratitude for this opportunity to highlight Gateway Academy. This alternative approach created by North Lawrence Community Schools is producing community-wide benefits. Individual student achievement at the most basic level, decreased suspensions and expulsions at the school level, and increased graduation rates which provide Lawrence County with employable, accomplished citizens, demonstrates that blended learning styles are effective. In this time of change I am thankful for the various ways that teaching and learning can be achieved. While there was a time when I did not see the benefits of the online format, I can say with full confidence that for some students, used in the right manner, it can be the key to motivation and success.