Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

E-Learning Opens Real-World Doors

By Ian Quillen — October 23, 2012 7 min read
Melissa Gorman, a special education teacher at the Academy for Design and Construction at Union High School in Grand Rapids, Mich., works with Delvonte Jackson-Stewart, an 11th grader, in his blended learning class. The course takes place in the school’s computer lab with a 1-to-8 adult-to-student ratio.
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For many schools, mixing online courses with face-to-face learning is primarily a method for serving struggling or advanced students while keeping them inside school walls.

But for several hundred high school students in the Grand Rapids, Mich., school district, blended learning is the key that unlocks the door to the real world.

In 2008, the district launched the first of five Centers of Innovation, one at each of the 17,000-student district’s high schools. They are designed to give students a pathway to in-school internships and fellowships that could eventually lead to careers. Two of the centers now use online courses from e2020, a provider located in Scottsdale, Ariz., for students’ core academic subjects.

“The overwhelming factor [in building a blended program] was the flexibility of being able to pull [students] out of class” for internships or college coursework, said Misty Stallworth, the assistant principal of the Academy for Design and Construction, one of those two centers. The academy serves roughly 120 students in a small wing of the much larger Union High School.

“We have a lot of students who just crave the flexibility of being able to work on what they want and when they want,” Ms. Stallworth added.

The blended models within the Academy for Design and Construction and the School of Business, Leadership, and Entrepreneurship, housed within the district’s Ottawa Hills High School, were not a result of a district emphasis on online learning when the district launched the initiative, however. And the district’s first Center of Innovation, Grand Rapids University Preparatory Academy at the district’s University Prep High School, was created in response to a group of local businesses that originally wanted to open a charter school with the aim of arming students with the skills needed to succeed in four-year colleges.

“A charter gets into many different areas of a system we hadn’t explored yet, including teachers’ unions,” said Mary Jo Kuhlman, the district’s executive director for organizational learning, when explaining why the district resisted the charter proposition in favor of school-based innovation centers. “We really wanted to be collaborative.”

Online Study Schedules

So instead of stopping at the creation of one center, the Grand Rapids district used the momentum from University Prep to charge each high school with creating a separately focused Center of Innovation by partnering with community players in separate vocational sectors. Career readiness is especially relevant in a community that has seen increasingly difficult economic times in the past two decades.

Because of the exodus of students from more affluent families to private schools and a local industrial economy that was slowing long before the recession that officially began in the final quarter of 2007, the percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch in the district had climbed steadily to 87 percent by the 2009-10 school year, from about 40 percent in 1991-92.

“Our goals were to expand school choice, increase student achievement, and also reduce the racial achievement gap,” said Ms. Kuhlman. The 2006 measure of adequate yearly progress, or AYP, found fewer than half the district’s schools to be meeting the standard under the federal No Child Left Behind law, the most recent version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

“Our other important factor was to be able to design and influence curriculum that was specific to that particular industry,” Ms. Kuhlman said.

With each high school developing its innovation-center idea organically, only the Academy for Design and Construction and the School of Business, Leadership, and Entrepreneurship chose to use online courses to cover core academic subjects when those centers were launched in 2009.


While the Grand Rapids school district reports that students in its Centers of Innovation are, on average, getting better grades than students not in the program, it’s difficult to gain more isolated data on the results of the blended programs at the Academy of Design and Construction and the School of Business, Leadership, and Entrepreneurship. Neither host school—Union High School nor Ottawa Hills High School—made adequate yearly progress, or AYP, in 2012, according to reports released in August and available on the district’s website. Both schools, though, showed double-digit percentage-point gains in the number of students meeting or exceeding their growth targets on the Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP, assessments in reading. Both schools have shown marginal increases in student retention since the centers were launched in 2008.


SOURCE: Grand Rapids Public Schools

Their blended approaches were more structured than what some other online students would encounter in a self-blended model, in which students select courses to supplement their brick-and-mortar studies to fill gaps in their schedules.

Freshmen and sophomores at the Academy of Design and Construction study both design and construction in a vocational technology classroom, while usually completing their core academic courses online and their electives in courses mixed with other Union High School students.

Their online study occurs in labs of 30 to 40 students of the same grade level. The labs are staffed by a lead teacher, a special education teacher, a paraprofessional, and a student advocate. That team combines to monitor students’ progress, gives optional mini-lessons when needed on particular subjects that a number of students may be tackling at the same time, delivers required one-on-one assessments to allow students to pass units of a given course, and intervenes whenever students run into academic difficulties.

Freshmen and sophomores are generally scheduled for no more than two consecutive hours of online coursework—a policy established as a result of lessons learned earlier in the center’s operation."Our students in the first couple years were screaming that we take too much time on the computer,” Ms. Stallworth said. “Even now, it takes until about halfway through the students’ freshman year for them to say, ‘You know, this is kind of good. This is working to my advantage.’”

Measuring Progress

Melissa Gorman, a special education teacher for the Academy of Design and Construction for the past four years, previously taught special education in a more traditional classroom for five years. She said the transition to the computer-lab model took some adjustment for her as a teacher, but has since become second nature.

“I really didn’t know what it was going to look like, and I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it, until I was in it and doing it,” said Ms. Gorman. She spent several summer days before her first year in professional-development sessions learning how to instruct with e2020’s content, as well as observing other schools in the state that incorporated online courses.

“We are given liberty,” she added. “Because it’s our fourth year working with this program, we’ve kind of figured out what is working best with us.”

By their junior year at the Academy of Design and Construction, students choose either a design path that involves a nearly full-day, twice-weekly internship, or a construction path, in which students spend two days a week working on houses being constructed or renovated through the Kent County, Mich., chapter of Habitat for Humanity. Students in the School of Business, Leadership, and Entrepreneurship take a similar path toward increasing specialization in their junior and senior years.

The result for Academy of Design and Construction students like junior José Ruelas is an increased amount of time spent working with the e2020 content during days he is not on the Habitat for Humanity job site. Because Mr. Ruelas has worked through some required classes, he spends the second half of his Monday taking a college-level introductory construction course, Ms. Stallworth said.

That still leaves him three hours on Mondays, and five on Wednesdays and Fridays, to work solely online, either on material in his Algebra 2 and English/language arts courses, or in other online electives, such as economics. He also has a one-hour early release those days.

“It does take some practice,” Mr. Ruelas said of the need for self-discipline. “You’ve been going to middle school and you’ve never been taking a class this way, asking for checks and for help from a teacher. But you get used to it. You pay attention to your lectures, take notes, and you get used to it.”

It’s tricky to measure the success of the blended programs of the Academy for Design and Construction and the School of Business, Leadership, and Entrepreneurship, in part because both Centers of Innovation will only be graduating their first seniors during the spring of 2013, and also because it’s hard to separate their results from those of their host schools.

Neither Union High School nor Ottawa Hills High School made AYP in 2012, according to progress reports released in August and available on the district’s website, with the latter school missing out because it did not attain target achievement goals for all subgroups of students in math and reading. Both schools, though, showed double-digit percentage-point gains in the number of students meeting or exceeding their growth targets on the Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measures of Academic Progress, or map, assessments in reading.

There is, however, some evidence that the Centers of Innovation and, more broadly, increased school choice options across primary and secondary grade levels, are working in a holistic sense. The number of Grand Rapids schools making AYP has increased for five straight years, according to the district’s 2011 strategic plan, and in 2010, rose to 47 of the district’s 59 schools total.

“I think what’s important here is what the intent was, and the intent was that we knew we had academic-achievement gaps and we knew we needed to make greater gains in academic achievement,” Ms. Kuhlman said. “When you looked at the data [in 2006], it told you, you needed to do something different. It was a natural fit.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2012 edition of Education Week as Online Opens Real-World Doors


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