School Committee examines online learningHow does a small school incorporate this approach?
For the last several years enrollment at the Block Island School has been declining and, as Superintendent Robert Hicks has explained at a number of School Committee meetings, the demographic outlook is for a further decline. At the request of the School Committee, Hicks began a review of “grade organization” — or combining classes — and he indicated he has expanded his inquiry to include the use of technology.
Hicks said he had been compiling resources designed to introduce the concept of blended learning, which is a combination of direct classroom instruction and online instruction. Within the information was an article discussing schools that have incorporated blended classrooms and what was to be learned from it.
He noted he had posted the piece, which offered a series of focus questions, on the Block Island School Future Facebook page. It and several other documents on the subject are also available at the school’s website (blockislandschool.net).
The significance of the process, Hicks felt, was to begin a dialogue within the community — of administrators, faculty, parents and students — to consider the different scenarios potentially affecting the future of the island school. To Hicks, it is an opportunity for looking at options that may change the nature of the classroom and of instruction within the next decade.
To that end, each School Committee meeting in upcoming months will dedicate time to “a public discussion of” those documents. Hicks has made them available, in an attempt to understand what blended learning is and how it might be tailored to serve the island school’s needs.
He said that part of the learning process would include sending teams to visit two schools in Providence, which have implemented blended learning. One is an elementary; the other high school. The trip is planned for Dec. 5.
Hicks called it a “learning field trip,” but cautioned against a “rush to judgment” because these very schools were “still refining the approach as they implement it.” He added, “Even the strongest programs have not completely learned how to use online instruction.”
Apparently, blended learning programs offer a variety of combinations. For example, Hicks cited Rocketship Schools in San Jose, California, which have “students moving back and forth between classrooms and learning labs.” Rocketship Schools are part of a privately developed charter school network incorporating direct instruction within the classroom in combination with online instruction—some of it from the non-profit educational website Khan Academy.
Concerned about the small sizes of some of the local school’s classes, School Board Chair Bill Padien asked, “How would blended learning play into the bigger picture of different grade levels?” Hicks rephrased the question “before us as ‘How do we provide a vibrant, broad curriculum in a small school such as ours?’”
His own response was that “these things change and evolve over time. If we get into it, it will be our own — a Block Island — model; it would be used in ways that are unique to us.”
Parent Wendy Crawford noted that “one of the best things about [this approach] is it is for everyone at every level. It can be individualized for each individual classroom.” She wondered if parents could be invited to the school to observe it in practice. Hicks hoped some parents would participate in the proposed field trip.
Elizabeth Connor’s concern was “about the very small size of our classes. How do we meet that challenge and the idea of different kids learning at different levels?” Parent Molly O’Neill asked, “Do you see it as something you’d start in the higher grades and move down or from the lower up?”
“I’m hoping I will not be sitting here telling people what we need to do. I’m hoping as we look at articles, visit other schools, and learn more, we can adapt it to our needs,” Hicks said.
“As I see it, it’s a tool. We may not mandate a curriculum; we should explore it. It’s going to rely a lot on teachers and parents,” said School Board member Chris Willi.
Faculty member Joanne Warfel pointed out, “One of the things that is exciting is the idea of kids working on long-term projects that are guided by teachers. A long-term project would not necessarily be single-grade oriented.”
Parent Julie Conant was looking for a definition. “Some people think of blended learning as having to do with multi-age, multi-grade classrooms. I’m not sure which it is,” Conant said.
Reflecting on how his perspective has been changing about blended learning, Hicks said, “In the past, I thought that online programs simply reiterated another way to present what’s already being taught. However, the technology now offers us new ways to teach.”
In anticipating expanded need and use of Internet connectivity, Hicks said, “We’re very near the bid-awarding for upgrading of the infrastructure in school, but there is a choke-hold on the Internet on island.” To alleviate that situation, he is hopeful that another microwave tower can be set up here.
The Comprehensive Plan
Hicks provided background to the board on a proposed plan for submission to the Planning Board, which asked for feedback as they update the town’s Comprehensive Plan, which expires in 2014. One area that Hicks highlighted was the drop in enrollment. Over the past 10 years, he pointed out, enrollment had “dropped by approximately 25 students, or 18 percent, from 140 [students] to 115.”
He attributed these declining figures to three causes: a general “drop in the numbers of school age children throughout the region…”; “a long-standing trend” that sees parents of high school students selecting mainland schools and a “small but emerging drop in the birth to kindergarten ratio that has been ascribed to the difficulties of young families in locating secure, permanent housing.”
In terms of the facility, Hicks itemized areas of concern as “moisture intrusion in the lower elementary, restoring the façade of the original building and playground area drainage.” Also, based on a security review, Hicks noted, “a stronger entryway and new interior door locks were identified as priorities.”
Programmatically, Hicks pointed out that “the school’s greatest challenge is internet bandwidth,” which “is of growing importance for expanding secondary offerings through online course, imminent online state assessment and the necessary preparatory instruction and data management …”
As to costs, “per-pupil expenditures continue to far exceed state averages,” which is a situation that has only been exacerbated by the drop in enrollment, as Hicks noted. O’Neill said that in researching those numbers, she and several other parents had concluded the per-pupil costs were less important than percentage of town budget, which for Block Island was the lowest in Rhode Island.
The School Committee reappointed Bill Padien as its chair and Elizabeth Connor as secretary. The board also approved the following appointments: Betsy DeMaggio as bus monitor; Mark Mollicone as varsity boys’ basketball head coach; Paul Hemingway as varsity boys’ basketball assistant coach; Robert Closter as varsity girls’ basketball head coach; Tim Keane as varsity girls’ basketball assistant coach; Paul Hemingway as junior high boys’ basketball head coach; Jaixen Hall as junior high boys’ basketball assistant coach; Nathaniel Shaw as junior high girls’ basketball head coach. A junior high school girls’ basketball assistant coach has yet to be chosen.
The next meeting is scheduled for Dec. 16 at 7 p.m.