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How To Create a Winning Blended School Model

Instructing students both online and in a brick-and-mortar environment effectively can lead to real learning growth

Poudre School District’s Global Academy ranked among the highest in the state of Colorado for student growth across all grades for the 2013-14 school year.  This achievement marks the first time an innovative school using blended and online learning has ranked in the top 95 percent of all Colorado schools—including traditional brick-and-mortar schools, charter schools and other online schools.  This web seminar featured a Poudre administrator who discussed lessons learned and how their program has evolved from an online school to a hybrid model since its inception six years ago, and the keys to creating a winning blended school model in any district.

Danica Wright: It is our mission to partner with school districts to fuel personalized learning and transform the education experience. We have the industry’s largest catalogue of online curricula that can be used across each unique type of program to provide every student with interactive, personalized instruction. We offer a wide K8 core and world-language catalogue, as well as hundreds of high school courses of various subject areas and academic levels.

Over the years we have seen the education space and classroom settings start to shift to a more blended model where teachers are able to use both online and offline teaching to enhance the educational experience for their students.

One of the biggest challenges in traditional instruction is meeting the needs of students in a single classroom with varying mastery levels. Because there is always a mix of students and different levels in the classroom, traditionally teachers often had to teach in the middle in order to engage both the advanced students as well as struggling students. As you know, this is not the most effective way of teaching, and so we’re forced to make a shift in the mindset.

Heather Hiebsch: We started in 2009 as an online school primarily focused on dropout prevention and credit recovery. What we found is that there are some wonderful things about online learning, but also some wonderful things about traditional schools and brick-and-mortar classrooms. So we’ve slowly, over six years, swung the pendulum in both directions and have landed in this nice middle space of blended learning.

One of the foundational principles that we have rested in is student engagement. We use a lot of work by Phillip Schlechty. One of his quotes that I love is, “Best practice cannot be described once and for all time. It must be discovered and created over and over again.” That gives me a lot of peace in our work, because we feel like we’re creating new models almost every year.

We believe that for student growth to occur, we need to be looking at these blended and hybrid opportunities. We also have to offer individualized learning in a small environment. One of the things that Schlechty focuses on for student engagement is this idea of affiliation. A student has to feel affiliated. They have to feel part of a school community to be truly engaged with it. Frankly, this is one of the places where online schools and some online courses tend to fall down.

If you are familiar with Schlechty’s work, you know that there are about seven or eight big key ideas around engagement. We look at these top three:

  • Affiliation. How can we make kids who aren’t here every day feel connected to the school so that they have that relationship and that desire to perform?
  • Choice and novelty. We’re leveraging technology and we’re leveraging digital resources. We can truly have 30 kids in a room and they can be doing 30 different things.
  • Affective skills. Our kids have to have grit and perseverance. If they are at home and their computer goes down, what do they do? Have we taught them what to do? Gratitude and appreciation, positive mindset, and health and wellness—these are a real focus of our staff.

One of the things we do is use online resources when our kids are on campus, and we use them in rotations with direct instruction. All of my students grades K through 12 are on campus two full days a week, and then they are at home in online classes three days a week. So we are truly a hybrid-schedule school. Then we use blended learning while the kids are on campus.

While they are here, we always do direct instruction in writing and math. That’s just where kids need more support, typically. And they are also the subjects that our parents have told us they don’t feel as comfortable providing the instruction at home. The kids are in three groups. One is with a set of laptops and we have them in an individualized program with online resources. Then they rotate to their lead teacher who provides direct instruction based on the data that he or she was able to get from the online resources. Then they rotate to a practice group for hands-on projects and things that are difficult to do at home by themselves.

We need to have intervention practices that students can access while they are at school and while they are at home. So we need to be looking at online resources and technology to be able to make that campus-to-home bridge. That’s where we’ve seen our biggest gains with our kids with huge gaps, and it’s because we were able to connect campus and home using some online resources, including FuelEd, for that intervention.

Our hybrid teachers are online and live. So the kids have one teacher for a subject. That helps with engagement because kids have to face the same teacher on those two days a week when they are in the classroom. The kids are also more likely to advocate for help, because they have the perception that there’s a positive relationship with their teacher.
We also  try to model a positive environment. There are a lot of kids who look at online schools because something went wrong at their traditional school. They are not necessarily trying to avoid interaction, but they are maybe trying to fix some poor interaction that happened in the past. So we  try to model positivity. Online and digital resources are wonderful tools, but we still have to be taking care of the kids as human beings.

We also need to develop parent partnerships. We treat parents like instructional paraprofessionals, focusing on the non-cognitive skills, those affective skills that are going to get a student through school—grit, perseverance, positive mindset, good relationships, motivation.

And if we’re going to be leveraging technology at home, that means we need to be training our parents. We call them “learning coaches,” which is a FuelEd term. Learning coaches fill out an application. We actually make them do a written response of how they will be planning to support their student on the home-based days. We have attendance contracts for home-based work. And we have required training and orientation. We call it Learning Coach Academy, wherein we actually do professional development for things such as differentiation and learning styles—things that will help parents when they have their students at home. We’re asking a lot of parents, so we need to treat them as our partners.

Hybrid learning should be connecting school to home. That’s why we have the two days per week required on campus. Part of the reason we moved to this model, instead of being a full-time online school, is that the kids who opted into the hybrid program were seven times more successful than our kids who were 100 percent online. Our hybrid kids are more successful even than some of the district averages and state averages.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please go to: