What is the ideal learning environment for a high schooler who also has a job? A student who needs a more individualized pace? Or a boy or girl who is turned off by the rigid schedules of most brick-and-mortar schools?
Educators at the Riverside Virtual School in California are still working on the answers to those questions, but with six years of experience, they have an idea of how such an environment might look. And more and more, that idea is taking shape as a blended learning approach, which mixes face-to-face instruction and online learning.
“The program morphs itself around the needs of the students,” said David E. Haglund, the principal of the grades 3-12 school, which is part of the 44,000-student Riverside school district.
Creating an educational environment that is truly personalized for each student has been at the heart of the school’s mission since it began piloting classes in the 2005-06 school year. And while that goal has remained constant, how it looks in practice continues to evolve as administrators and teachers there try out new ways to best meet students’ needs.
The latest evolution is a blended learning program for middle schoolers, which requires them to come to school for three hours a day, three days a week—although, staying true to the school’s mission, exceptions to that schedule can be made for certain students, Mr. Haglund said.
“The middle school students needed more support,” said Shay Sun, the middle school language arts teacher for Riverside Virtual. “Many of them weren’t getting through the curriculum.”
However, helping students understand that even though they are on campus for only nine hours each week, they will need to do schoolwork at home continues to be a challenge, Mr. Sun said.
Teaching students that kind of independence has been a challenge since the virtual school began, said Mr. Haglund.
"[In a traditional school], we tell kids when to think about stuff and when to stop thinking about stuff. We remind them to turn in their homework. [But in an online environment], that kid has to be responsible,” the principal said. “These kids who have been trained to be responsive, but not responsible, struggle with that.”
Although this is the school’s first official foray into blended learning on a large scale, it has used blended techniques for some of its online classes since its inception. For instance, all online science and physical education classes require students to go to a brick-and-mortar school for lab or physical-activity components.
And all students taking virtual classes can visit the labs to work on coursework or to make appointments with their teachers for extra help.
Unlike with some virtual schools, the curriculum at Riverside is created by its teachers, said Mr. Haglund.
“Early on, we made the decision that we were going to develop courses and develop relationships with vendors only if they allowed us to drop the pieces that weren’t aligned to standards and add the sections that were missing,” he said.
Teachers use district-approved textbooks and digital resources as well as online content repositories, such as Khan Academy and Massachusetts Institute of Technology open courses, in addition to other online materials they find on their own.
Riverside Virtual School began in the 2006-07 school year with a group of 35 students. During the 2011-12 school year, it delivered 4,685 semester course enrollments—1,727 of those from full-time online students and 2,958 as supplemental courses. Full-time virtual students in the California district have maintained a 100 percent passing rate for the California High School Exit Examination for the past three years, and an average of a 96 percent passing rate for the English/language arts section. For each year that schoolwide data for Riverside Virtual have been available, it has topped the state’s Academic Performance Index, or API, goal of 800.
SOURCE: California Department of Education
Courtney Hanes, Riverside Virtual’s 9th and 10th grade English teacher as well as the English department chair, collaborated with David Dillon, the school’s history department chair and high school history teacher, to design the 7th and 8th grade language arts and social studies curriculum.
“It’s extremely helpful to create curriculum and see the kids go through it and work with them on it while you’re teaching,” Ms. Hanes said.
Finding ways to engage students in curriculum can be difficult, said Mr. Dillon, but being able to critique the curriculum and redesign it when it isn’t working is absolutely essential to his success as a virtual teacher.
“They’re cutting funding for everything today,” he said, “but the thing that has been helpful is a very supportive and knowledgeable superintendent. This would not work in a place where you weren’t given the freedom to fail.”
Although current Riverside Unified superintendent Richard L. Miller came to the district after the virtual school’s inception, he has been a champion of the school during his tenure and kept it safe during some tough budget cutting cycles.
Many teachers at Riverside Virtual sought out the environment for the same reasons the students did: increased flexibility and the ability to try new techniques. “It’s exhilarating and exhausting, and it’s always changing,” Ms. Hanes said.
Mr. Sun, the middle school language arts teacher, began teaching virtually at the beginning of this school year after teaching English/language arts at a regular school in the district for 13 years.
Moving from a traditional school to a blended environment has taken some getting used to, he said. One of the biggest hurdles, he said, is trusting students to take responsibility for their own learning.
“Online, the kids really have to read [instructions] step by step, and also they need to be responsible enough to ask for help when they get stuck,” said Mr. Sun.
For the teacher, that’s much different from walking around a classroom and looking over the shoulders of students to see if they need help.
In the new blended model for middle schoolers, teams of teachers work with students during their three-hour in-school block, during which students receive a mini-lesson, spend time conducting labs, and go through an advisory period. Students also have about an hour of flex time, when they do work they choose for themselves.
Teaching in a room with other teachers also was an adjustment, said Mr. Sun. “In a traditional classroom, it’s easy to just close your door,” he said. But in this environment, “you’re literally out in the open.”
Kelly C. McAllister teaches 7th and 8th grade science as well as biology and anatomy/physiology for high schoolers for Riverside Virtual. Like Mr. Dillon, Ms. McAllister pins much of the school’s success on supportive leadership and the encouragement to try new instructional techniques.
“If we try something and it doesn’t work, we learn from it and we make it better,” she said. “Our [principal] has set it up so that we have room for innovation.”
Ms. McAllister also appreciates the blended approach to the science classes. While she still gets to see her students face to face for labs, she doesn’t have to deal with some of the structural and behavioral challenges of a traditional classroom.
“I don’t miss bells. I don’t miss class sizes of 35. I don’t miss some behavior problems because kids don’t want to be in a seat for six hours,” she said.
As it turns out, neither do many students.
Anthony S. Davis is an 11th grader taking three online classes through Riverside Virtual this school year.
“I wanted to take classes online so that I could do work at my own pace and not be stuck at school all day,” he said. Mr. Davis likes the flexibility of being able to take breaks in between his work, he said in an email interview, but conceded that the most difficult part of taking classes online is staying motivated enough not to procrastinate.
“It helps me to go into the [school building] to help me focus,” he said.
For Alexis Ginsberg, a 16-year-old senior at Riverside Virtual, taking classes online was ideal because it allowed her to move at an accelerated pace toward early graduation, as well as hold down a job.
“I don’t have to worry about going at the pace of the other students, and when I want to ask my teacher something I can use video chat, email, or a phone call,” she said. “The teachers treat me as if I am the only one in the class.”
Similarly, William Lyons, a 4th grader in the school, is taking all of his classes online to prepare to enter the Riverside stem Academy in 5th grade, he said. He likes the flexibility of getting to choose when he does schoolwork, he said, and the extra time he has to spend on activities, from sports to museum visits to time with his family.
Zachary Dorson, a junior, is a full-time online student at Riverside.
“I am what is known as a ‘slow learner,’ ” he said in an email interview. “I don’t like to feel pressured and like to take my time, and with [this school] I can do that.”
Being in online classes actually increases the amount of interaction he has with his teachers, he said, whom he can contact through platforms like Google chat.
“The teachers are always available to help,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2012 edition of Education Week as Riverside Designs a Custom Fit for K-12