Education Opinion

The Networked School

By Wayne Gersen — December 03, 2003 8 min read
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Could a hybrid of home schooling and public education be the wave of the future?

I’ve seen the future of public education in the foothills of the Sierras. Mountain Oaks School, located in an industrial park just outside San Andreas, Calif., is the kind of personalized public school that will spring up from coast to coast as traditional public schools are forced to narrow their curricula and eliminate programs because of mandated testing and budget constraints. Founded nine years ago, Mountain Oaks School is a flexible, web- like, networked school that is far more effective and much more appealing to parents and students than the rigid, hierarchical factory school design that often typifies public education today.

In the early 1990s, Calaveras County Associate Superintendent Ron Lewis had concern for the home schooling families who contributed to public schools as taxpayers but were not receiving any benefits. He commissioned two home school parents to do research on what such families in the area would want and need from a public institution. These two parents, Linda Mariani and Nancy McKone, were certified teachers who educated their children and neighbors’ children at home because they appreciated the positive effects home schooling had on their children and family life. Ms. Mariani and Ms. McKone met face to face with scores of home schooling families and generated reams of information that served as the basis for the their report. The design for Mountain Oaks School emerged from their findings.

Mountain Oaks School, which now serves 379 students in grades K- 12, has no classrooms, no formally scheduled classes, no formal discipline code, no classroom teachers, and no report cards. Instead of these traditional trappings of “school,” it provides home schooling parents with a network of services, and home-schooled students with a network of learning opportunities.

Mountain Oaks is situated in two small warehouses, and every inch of space is put to use. The first floor of the two-story “lower building” includes an office that also serves as a student/mentor-teacher meeting space; a 12- station computer lab in a long, narrow, corridorlike space; a conference/seminar/classroom; a mailroom; and a 400-square-foot library. While the library is undersized by conventional standards, shelves full of books and resource materials line every available wall space on both stories of the lower building. The second floor of the lower building consists of six faculty office spaces of varying sizes and configurations and a larger conference/seminar/classroom/kitchen room. The “upper building” houses an art studio, a lounge for secondary students, and lots of storage space for consumable learning materials that students and parents can access when they wish, using an honor system.

Despite the small physical plant, overcrowding isn’t an issue at Mountain Oaks because the 379 students enrolled are never in attendance at one time. Instead of scheduling classes that meet regularly, Mountain Oaks schedules ad hoc workshops that meet as needed and where needed. The topics of the workshops range from formal instruction in foreign languages and preparation seminars for California’s high school exit examinations to introductory units in crafts and interdisciplinary lessons in poetry, geography, and art. The workshops are often held off campus in private homes, in nearby public parks, or in community centers. They are offered for parents and students, in some cases together and in other cases separately. Most of the workshops are offered to multiage groups of students, recognizing that 12- and 18-year-olds can learn introductory pottery skills or foreign languages together, and that children of all ages can sing or play instruments together. The workshops not only teach academic content, but also provide students with an opportunity to develop social skills and meet with peers.

There are no classroom teachers at Mountain Oaks. Instead, there is a faculty of mentor-teachers, each of whom is assigned up to 25 students. A mentor-teacher, who serves as a combination case manager, counselor, and guide for a student and his or her parent, is assigned to the student by an intake team, based on the student’s personal and academic needs, his or her learning style, and the kind of instructional approach desired by the parent. Mentor-teachers work with students for varied time periods. Some have worked with the same student for the nine years the school has been in operation; others work for a semester at a time. Students have the option of changing mentor-teachers at the end of a semester if the parents’ or students’ needs aren’t being met. The mentor-teachers accept these reassignments, realizing that the fit between teacher, student, and parent is crucial to the student’s success—and that, as a student matures and interests develop, the fit may change.

Mountain Oaks replaces a one-size-fits-all mentality with a customer focus and an industrial-age organizational pattern with one for the information age.

At the beginning of each semester, the mentor-teacher helps the parent and student develop a personalized learning plan that defines the learning standards the student will master in the coming weeks and the means of measuring progress toward that standard. At periodic meetings throughout the semester, the mentor-teacher assists the parent and student in monitoring the student’s progress toward the attainment of the standards they set for themselves, and provides direct supplementary instruction or appropriate instructional materials as needed. At the end of each semester, the mentor-teacher, student, and parent develop grades for the student’s performance, using appropriate rubrics agreed upon at the beginning of the semester.

This holistic performance assessment takes the place of a traditional grading system. Since the students and parents are directly involved in planning the work for the semester, there are no students who fail. Modifications, adjustments, and redirection can happen at any time during the semester to meet individual needs and interests. One byproduct of the Mountain Oaks grading system is the absence of competition between students. Discussions about “What’d ya get?” are nonexistent. Instead, students ask, “What are you studying?”

This grading system doesn’t work for every student. A few realize they are not committed to the independent learning process and decide to go back to a model where there is more external control. A majority of those who attend Mountain Oaks, though, welcome the opportunity to learn at their own pace in their own way.

Mountain Oaks is like a traditional public school in two respects: It offers a wide array of extracurricular activities, and it has varied demographics. Mountain Oaks has interscholastic and intramural athletic teams, an “academic decathlon” squad, a school newspaper and yearbook, and many special-interest clubs sponsored by parents and community members. The demographics of Mountain Oaks are similar to those of the nearby public schools. Roughly one-third of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and many were or would be identified as students with disabilities in a traditional school setting. Students come from single-parent families and families where both parents work.

The most striking difference between Mountain Oaks School and the typical public school is the level of parent involvement. Mountain Oaks parents want to provide an educational program that meets their children’s individual needs, and they believe that the traditional public school cannot do that as well as they can. Before enrolling a child in Mountain Oaks, each parent commits to working four hours per month for the school. In keeping with California’s independent-study guidelines, the parents agree to provide a minimum of four hours a day of supervised instruction for the core subjects for their children. This instruction can take place at home, on campus, or in some other venue.

At first blush, this appears to be an unreasonable expectation for a parent, but since students are so engaged in their learning process and not limited to working during the normal school day, the four-hour commitment is much less onerous than it might otherwise be. The Internet and Mountain Oaks’ own warehouse are full of instructional materials, and the student’s mentor-teacher, Mountain Oaks parent volunteers, and the Mountain Oaks staff have a network of resources to support the parent’s efforts.

If public schools hold fast to the old, factory-model way of doing things, their buildings will soon be as empty and forlorn as the steel mills in America's Rust Belt.

As budget crises force districts to reduce the length of the school year, to limit the number of elective courses and extracurricular activities, and to abandon popular programs such as enrichment and elementary art and music, public schools will become less inviting and less personal. As the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act forces all schools to narrow their curricular focus to boost test scores, they will find it more difficult to meet the individual needs of every student. Mountain Oaks School offers a low-cost, high-performing alternative to the traditional public school. It replaces the rigid factory design with a flexible network design. It replaces a one-size-fits-all mentality with a customer focus, a regulatory environment with a nurturing one. More important, it replaces an industrial-age organizational pattern with one for the information age.

In Calaveras County, Calif., the school board and administration found a way to merge the home schooling movement with public schooling. And they encouraged home schooling parents to design their own learning environments. If public schools hold fast to the old, factory-model way of doing things, their buildings will soon be as empty and forlorn as the steel mills in America’s Rust Belt. But if public schools are open to new ideas, they may redefine “school” and find a powerful way to connect with students and parents. It happened in the foothills of the Sierras. It can happen in other communities.

Wayne Gersen is a freelance writer with 22 years’ experience as a school superintendent, in four states. He lives in Charlotte, Vt.


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