This past school year has been a little less hectic for busy juniors and seniors at Hempfield High School, thanks to a new, unique online course-sharing initiative.
The Hempfield School District is in a suburban-rural community outside Lancaster, Pa., and is one of three local districts that have implemented Open Campus PA, a program that unites its high school with the nearby Penn Manor and Manheim Township districts’ high schools. The goal is to share teachers and selected online courses, allowing participating students to take online classes on their own time.
After a successful first academic year, the program is expected to grow starting next fall, nearly doubling the amount of courses offered and almost tripling student participation, from 120 students to more than 300 from the three high schools combined.
“We have heard of other online programs offered in high schools, but nothing in terms of working with other districts, at least in our state,” says Hempfield Superintendent Brenda Becker. “Many of these other programs seem to have cookie-cutter courses, but we wanted to truly make our program our own and make it fit the needs of our students.”
Sharing a Vision
Becker describes Open Campus PA’s origins as dating to 2011 at a Pennsylvania State Education Association meeting, where Superintendent Michael Leichliter from the neighboring Penn Manor district was also attending. While talking to Leichliter, Becker says, she spoke of her vision for Hempfield schools to provide more choices for its students.
“[Leichliter] said he was thinking the same thing and we thought ‘why not work together?’. We both have good districts that are very similar in size and have good leadership,” she says. “We were really thinking about breaking down the barriers of time and space at school, to give students the courses they want to take, when and how they want to take them.”
Becker says she started looking into online courses for Hempfield to provide a more flexible schedule for high school students working after school and to reduce costs for the district.
“In the last year, we’ve eliminated 30 teaching positions, and because of this, we were no longer able to offer the same variety of courses,” Becker says. “We also have students, particularly at our high school, that are working long hours after school, sometimes working to help support their families. To have students working until 10 or 11 at night and expect them to be fully functioning at 7 in the morning to focus on math or science is a nice thought, but that’s not the reality.”
When Gene Freeman, superintendent of the Manheim Township District, heard about the two districts wanting to work together, he asked that his district be included in the project.
“After Gene was included, we realized that to bring on any other districts would be very difficult and that we should focus on creating the program and getting it off the ground,” Becker says.
Keeping Teachers in Mind
In early 2012, the superintendents formed a steering committee that included themselves, high school principals, and technology directors to start developing Open Campus PA. Becker says a unique element to the committee is that all three districts also have their respective teachers’ association (or union) representatives present at all meetings.
While working with all three districts’ teachers’ associations at the state level, Wendy Leary, the Pennsylvania State Education Association’s UniServ representative and a member of the Open Campus PA steering committee, says the associations have been heavily involved in creating and implementing the selected courses and work on behalf of the teachers who volunteered to teach the online courses.
“This is helping support teachers by offering their perspective,” Leary says. “It’s exciting and rewarding to work with these districts and when there are challenges, we’re able to all sit at the table to work them out. It makes teachers more comfortable to know we’re there.”
Giving Students More Choices
After several months of developing Open Campus PA, the initiative started in the fall of 2012 with eight courses: Astronomy, Business Spanish, Chemistry, English, Government and Economics, Physics, and Pre-Calculus.
The majority of the classwork is done online (with the option to occasionally attend classes in person throughout the week) and is completed on the students’ own time. Because of this flexibility, Hempfield students who take classes on Open Source PA also have the option to come to school a block late or leave a block early. Becker says while all the courses are accessed using the course management system Moodle, the students also connect through chats, discussion forums, and Google Hangout, a video chat platform, to work together on projects and do homework together. In the math classes, teachers and students have been using the Livescribe pen, which allows users to demonstrate equations live online.
“One of the things we were very intentional about was to make sure these courses were not just taking the traditional classroom and putting everything online, like readings, assignments, and tests,” Becker says. “We wanted the classes to be much more interactive and engaging.” Through Open Source PA, Hempfield students are also exposed to courses previously unavailable to them. “For example, we (Hempfield) don’t have someone that teaches astronomy, but Penn Manor does have someone and our students now have access to that,” Becker explains. “Out of the three districts, we’re the only one with a certified Latin teacher and that’s a course we could develop in the future.”
After the first semester of Open Source PA was completed in January, the program’s steering committee conducted student and teacher surveys and focus groups to learn what was working well. Except for a couple of technical glitches, such as broken links to online sources, that had to be resolved, Becker says the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
“We knew from the get-go that this option is not good for all students, as many of them found out quickly that you have to be self-motivated, but many students said they learned time management skills and said they felt better prepared for college,” she says. “Participating teachers said the program opened them to new ideas and teaching strategies they hadn’t thought of before. Many say they have started using these new concepts in their traditional classes and are finding that their students are much more responsive and engaged.”
Due to the first semester’s success, Becker says 10 additional courses are being developed for the 2013-2014 academic year, such as Creative Writing, Geometry, Health Education, and Personal Financial Literacy, and the three schools are looking into developing online options for physical education, Advanced Placement courses, and for freshman and sophomore students.
Spreading the Word
While Becker says it is too early to tell whether her district has saved a significant amount of money with Open Campus PA, she says it “certainly has not cost the district any more funds.”
She adds that the program has sparked Hempfield administrators to look into adding more widespread technology professional development opportunities for its teachers and promoting the best practices learned through Open Campus PA to all its schools. There have also been discussions about eventually cutting back on textbooks throughout the district. Becker says Open Campus PA may eventually add more districts to the program, and possibly expand it to all districts statewide.
“I’m so proud of how our three districts were able to come together and the amount of respect there is from all involved,” says Becker. “Our goal is to provide our students with as many options as we can during these fiscally challenging times.”
Lauren Williams is products editor.
Hempfield (Pa.)School District
- Schools: 10
- Students: 6,810
- Staff and faculty: 935
- Per child expenditure: $9,601
- Students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 27%
- Dropout Rate: 1.12%
- Website: www.hempfieldsd.org