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West Fork adds schools of innovation

by Brenda Bernet | September 18, 2016 at 1:06 a.m.
Elizabeth Farris (from left), 16; Mason Ramey, 15; Austin Hayes, 15; and Kendall Hays, 15; all sophomores at West Fork High School, work on laptops Wednesday in the library at West Fork High School. The school has created the Personalized Learning Academy which allows students to learn at their own pace with teachers and mentors to offer instruction and assistance as it is needed.

WEST FORK -- Conversations are different this school year among seventh- and eighth-graders in English teacher Joey Dickard's classroom.

Dickard is among four middle school teachers spending part of the day in a new Personalized Learning Academy housed within the middle school. Dickard's academy classes combine seventh- and eighth-graders in regular and pre-Advanced Placement classes. A similar program also started this year at West Fork High School.

Schools of Innovation

New across the state for 2016-17

• Greenwood School District: Greenwood Junior High

• Kirby School District: Kirby High School

• Lake Hamilton School District: Lake Hamilton High School

• Lakeside School District: Lakeside Middle School

• Newport School District: Newport High School

• Pangburn School District: Pangburn High School

• Prescott School District: Prescott High School

• Stuttgart School District — Stuttgart High School

• West Fork School District: West Fork High School

• West Fork School District: West Fork Middle School

• White County Central School District: White County Central High School

• Wynne School District: Wynne Intermediate School

Northwest Arkansas schools of innovation opened since 2014-15

• Bentonville School District: Cooper Elementary School

• Fayetteville School District: Leverett Elementary School and Agee-Lierly Life Preparation Services School

• Springdale School District: Don Tyson School of Innovation, Sonora Middle School and Westwood Elementary School

• West Fork School District: West Fork High School and West Fork Middle School

Source: Arkansas Department of Education

Different public schools in Arkansas

The state has given public schools freedom to implement different models of education by granting exemptions from many regulations for charter schools and schools of innovation.

• 24 open-enrollment charter schools: Public schools that operate under a charter contract freeing them from many regulations created for traditional public schools. These schools draw students from a wide geographic area and are not bound by the geographic boundaries of traditional school districts and are run by independent organizations.

• 28 district-conversion charter schools: A public school converted to a charter school that is run by a traditional school district and draws students from a school district’s geographic boundary.

• 22 schools of innovation: These schools are another option for traditional school districts to receive waivers from state laws to develop different educational models within their districts.

A Charter Authorizing Panel with in the Arkansas Department of Education is the primary authorizer for all charter schools in the state, though panel decisions are reviewed by the State Board of Education. The Commissioner of Education designates schools of innovation.

Source: Arkansas Department of Education

Dickard's seventh-graders have been studying dystopian novels. She described a conversation she overheard among a seventh-grader and an eighth-grader taking her regular English classes and an eighth-grader taking her pre-Advanced Placement English class. The students were debating whether dystopian novels are science fiction, a question that led them to explore genres of literature.

"You don't see that in just a regular classroom," Dickard said.

The Personalized Learning academies are the West Fork School District's first two state-approved schools of innovation. The Personalized Learning Academy at West Fork Middle School involves about 75 of the school's 100 seventh- and eighth-graders. West Fork High School's version involves about 160 of the 350 students in ninth through 12th grade.

The new programs give students more choices about what they study, where they sit and when they complete assignments in academy courses.

Giving students control over how long it takes to finish a course makes it possible for them to have more room in their high school schedules for electives that interest them and for college or Advanced Placement courses, said Denise Airola, director of the state's Office of Innovation for Education at the University of Arkansas. The programs also can free students up during the school day for work experiences designed to help them prepare for college and careers after high school.

"We now have more ways we can put together learning experiences for kids so that they can be more engaged in and better drivers of their own learning and interests," Airola said.

The office assists schools with researching educational ideas and worked with West Fork in developing its schools of innovation.

High School Principal John Crowder hopes to see increased attendance, higher ACT scores, students with industrial certifications, improved grades and reduced discipline.

A different experience

High school students who chose the academy spend two to four periods of an eight-period day in it, Crowder said. Students taking college courses may spend more of their day in that part of the high school. Middle school students spend four class periods each day in the academy.

Teachers are not standing in front of a classroom giving a lecture in the academy, Crowder said. Each student has a laptop computer for accessing his work. Students in the English teacher's classroom may work on lessons for literature, but they also may work on math or history assignments there. They may listen to music while working, and they may sit alone or work in a group.

Eight academy teachers uploaded all assignments, lessons and tests for their courses onto an online learning system, Schoology. Students progress through courses at their pace, moving through topics they grasp more quickly and taking more time with concepts that are harder to understand, Crowder said.

At the high school, students must earn a 90 percent grade on assignments and tests that cover essential skills and a 70 percent grade on other assignments and tests deemed important, he said. Students must continue working on assignments until they receive the minimum grade.

"You must do 100 percent of every assignment, or you will not get credit for the class," he said.

At the middle school, students must earn a 90 percent grade to continue, said Becky Ramsey, school principal.

Participation in the academy is voluntary, and students had to apply, Crowder said. The program fits a range of academic ability, though it's not a good fit for students with a poor history of attendance, those who are far behind on credits for graduation or those with extremely low reading or math skills.

Each student meets once a week with a mentor teacher, who makes sure he or she stays on track, Crowder said. Students who fall too far behind lose their freedoms and are subject to closer supervision until they catch up.

Senior Ryan Rau, 17, is taking an Advanced Placement literature course, civics and economics through the Personalized Learning Academy. The academy drew Rau's interest because he often felt bored in classes and wanted to work at his own pace.

"It allows me to get ahead," he said. "I feel more productive."

Learning from other schools

Inspiration for establishing a school of innovation within the high school and middle school came last fall when a few district staff members attended an annual state conference highlighting examples of innovations in schools, including in a rural school district in Indiana much like West Fork.

The Office of Innovation paid for several West Fork staff members to visit Western Wayne Schools in Indiana to learn how a small rural school district implemented a personalized learning program, said Airola, director of the office.

The ideas interested the West Fork administration, and the district had a working plan within a few months with the help of the Office of Innovation, said Sarah Jones, an English teacher who attended the conference.

The new schools of innovation further West Fork's efforts over the past several years to give teachers and students more access to technology for learning, Crowder said. The high school began issuing all students a laptop in 2014-15 and expanded digital course offerings last school year.

Personalized learning is part of a movement toward more student-focused learning systems, Airola said. There are different forms, but they all give students more control over the pace, place and time for learning. Some early research shows promising outcomes for programs that take a personalized approach, including from a report from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Rand Corporation.

In most states, charter schools have had the most opportunity to try innovative models of learning, but public schools, including in Indiana and Utah, are adopting the concepts, Airola said. Schools learn from each other through the work of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning. The organization advocates for school programs that personalize education, allow students to advance through subjects based on mastery, and allow for live and online instruction.

The Office of Innovation staff has sought models of innovative practices within traditional school systems now that Arkansas public schools are able to request waivers to test innovations through laws passed in 2013 and 2015, Airola said.

Adjusting to new format

Penelope Osburn, West Fork High School math teacher, is no longer standing in front of a classroom of students who don't want to listen, she said.

"It's fun to be able to work one on one with the kids who need it while others, who are ready to, move on," Osburn said. "I just have to be ready to answer any question that comes up."

Teachers at the middle school are helping students gain skills to be successful in the academy through high school, Ramsey said. She still laughs when she tells of a parent whose child said he didn't need a copy of his schedule because he could go wherever he wanted.

Students have choices but not quite that much freedom, she said.

"You still have to do your work and be responsible," she said.

Some middle school students in the academy decided to focus on just one subject when the new school year started but soon realized they needed to adjust to stay on track, Dickard said.

Dickard encouraged students to spend 45 minutes on each of their subjects like they did on the traditional schedule. The students could then figure out which subjects they finished more quickly and which required extra time, she said.

Dickard also has given "class sessions" on note taking and studying vocabulary with index cards.

"They're all learning about how they learn," she said.

NW News on 09/18/2016

Print Headline: West Fork adds schools of innovation


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