Discussion of blended learning ongoing at school
At the most recent meeting of the School Committee, Superintendent Robert Hicks reported on a visit on Dec. 5 to two schools in Providence that have incorporated online learning into their academic programs. Island Free Library Director Kristin Baumann, high school science teacher Susan Gibbons, first grade teacher Laurie McTeague, student Millie Starr and parent Lisa Stiepock joined him and Co-Principal Kristine Monje on the trip.
The first school visited was Pleasant View Elementary School, which Hicks described as having been “low performing but … now showing impressive gains.” He said the classes were “traditionally organized… teacher-led” and augmented by online instruction available through stations set up within the classroom. The majority of time spent — about 75 percent — was in a traditional context and 25 percent was spent online.
The second school was Village Green, a charter school established this year that teaches grades 9 and 10. Each year it will add another grade to become a complete high school. At this school, an online curriculum drives the academic program, with students spending “60 percent of their time online and 40 percent in supportive classrooms [workshops],” Hicks said. Each teacher, he added, had the “power to frame their own workshops. What goes into them is still their biggest challenge.”
He added that the administrations of both schools were committed to implementation of the blended learning approach and both schools had new faculties — all very strong advocates for the approach.
At Pleasant View, Hicks pointed out that blended learning was “a part of the picture, not the whole picture.” At Village Green, Hicks said, “It was the core of the school’s mission.”
“Neither school found that its blended model decreased staff,” Hicks said. In the Village Green, perhaps 50 to 60 students might be at computer work stations, while teachers circulated around them. In the workshops, teachers usually had 10 to 12 students. He added that the staffing ratios were the same as in public school across the state.
When observing students at each school, Hicks explained that those at Pleasant View were very engaged. He said, “We were amazed at the students’ concentration.” He added they spoke about online learning as “fun.” He noted, “The games and contests kept them interested, and [they] stayed at a level that was challenging, but not too hard.” The computers, Hicks observed, “keep them at the right level of difficulty — enough to challenge but not to frustrate.”
A good model for some but not for all
Comparing it with their former schools, students at Village Green were also quite engaged and “felt their teachers were very supportive,” Hicks said. “It’s a really good model for some, but not for all.”
Both schools had some technical challenges. Hicks observed that the issue for the island school was limitations of bandwidth. He said that Pleasant View used cell phone modems through a major carrier, and since he felt the Block Island School “was in a 3G- hotspot,” that might be something to look into.
“How does the approach work for students who are struggling?” asked School Board member Elizabeth Connor. Hicks said that it seemed to work “well for students with certain difficulties.” He added the computer receives and gives immediate feedback to the students, as do the teachers, who can at any time override a program to intervene for a student who is stymied.
Noting some issues across the country of charter schools with special education programs, parent Molly O’Neill wondered how many of the students who left the Village Green School were special needs students. “Is this going to work for our Special Ed kids? she asked.
Hicks said he didn’t think that special education students were incompatible with online instruction. “Some will like to work online and others will not. For some, it matches their learning style,” he said. Member Pat Doyle found the possibilities “exciting,” and suggested arranging ways to have others—parents and members of the community—visit or see videos of the schools in session.
One area in which Hicks believed a blended approach might be useful to the island school was in tracking where students were academically, which might be resolved by certain online programs (software). Another issue addressed by the new approach was, Hicks said, “how we provide course diversity for high school students.”
Connor wondered whether the approach would lend itself to a multi-grade arrangement of classes. However, Hicks said students at the visited schools remained within their own grades, while logging on at their own levels. “It would seem that a student excelling through the stages of math proficiency would just keep on going,” Doyle said, a point with which Hicks agreed.
Board member Chris Willi said it was clear that “we’re not looking to adopt a particular model but tailor one to our own needs — one that would allow students to go at their own pace.”
Hicks said the mainland visit made the members of the team that visited the schools feel good about the programs offered at the island school. “Most felt we are in a good place. It made them appreciate what we have,” Hicks said. “Perhaps the way to think about it is that we are a very good school that can kick it up a notch.”
The board agreed to continue the dialogue and Connor asked for the next meeting on the subject to be a “kind of workshop — a little less formal to engage in discussion with parents and members of the community.” Chair Bill Padien and Hicks agreed.
Planning for 2014-2015 budget
In order to plan for next year’s budget, Hicks said there were several important items to factor in. Projecting a number of changes in wages and health insurance, in faculty contributions to the latter, contracts that expire and those to be negotiated, as well as changing levels of state aid, Hicks said these needed to be considered before the school department budget is submitted to the town, which is due by the end of February. He recommended that the board hold several workshops to develop the budget. The board agreed to schedule these for Jan. 27 and 30 and Feb. 3 — all at 4:30 p.m.
Board member Annie Hall reviewed a recent meeting called by Guidance Counselor Betty Gomes for the parents of college-bound students in grades 11 and 12 on student loans. Of Gomes, Hall said, “She was great!”
Hicks announced the resignation of teaching assistant Katie Tarkey.
The next meeting is scheduled for Jan. 10 at 7 p.m.