Connor Kearns did not expect to spend his junior year thinking about college.
“In 7th grade, I thought I might as well join the Marines and then do trade school like my dad,” said the 16-year-old California student.
In fact, for his final semester in 9th grade at the school he then attended, Mr. Kearns said he received two D’s and failed the rest of his classes. Although that school, Northgate High School in the Mount Diablo school district outside of San Francisco, was considered one of the best in the area, “I was a number failing through the system,” he said.
Mr. Kearns is now entering his second year at the 152-student San Francisco Flex Academy, a blended charter school operated by the Herndon, Va.-based K12 Inc., the largest for-profit provider of K-12 online learning.
“Now, I am in AP and honors classes, and I passed with a higher than 4.0 GPA last semester,” said Mr. Kearns. “I came here and turned things around, and started thinking about college. ‘Where am I going? What am I going to do?’ I’ve never asked myself these questions before.”
Students in the flex model, which now has two locations—one in San Francisco and the other in Silicon Valley—spend five days a week at school working through the K12 Inc. online curriculum for part of the day and attending breakout classes taught by teachers face to face.
"[Students] are not being confined to time, path, pace, and place,” said Leah Rodgers, K12’s senior director of academics for blended learning. “They’re not being told, ‘This is when math starts, and this is when it stops.’ … If [students] are learning, that’s what we care about.”
The San Francisco Flex Academy, located in the heart of downtown in the city’s former Press Club, is the original flex academy, opened during the 2010-11 school year. The school serves grades 9-12 and is now in its third year.
Part of the 55,000-student San Francisco school district, it is overseen by a Board of Trustees for the Flex Public Schools, the nonprofit organization that oversees both the San Francisco and Silicon Valley academies.
The school has breakout rooms as well as a large “flex” center where study carrels fill the room beneath crystal chandeliers. On a Monday afternoon in late September, students were quiet and focused as they scrolled through Wikipedia, typed essays, and worked through their online curriculum. In one carrel, a student worked on math problems; in the next, a student studied science.
Academic coaches circled the room, leaning over to help students when they raised their hands. Those coaches typically are noncertified teachers who are often pursuing careers in education but have not yet finished their certification, Ms. Rodgers said.
“These are the people who are generally asking kids to get back on track, making sure that they’re doing what they need to, and removing barriers that potentially prevent students from learning or accessing the curriculum,” she said.
Focus on Data
Royce Conner, the head of school at the San Francisco Flex Academy, said the academic coaches are “the greatest source of qualitative data on students.” Coaches and teachers at SF Flex are equipped with tablet computers so that with a few clicks, they can pull up a myriad of data on each student to help inform their discussions and make sure that students are on track.
That emphasis on data runs deep in both of the flex academies. On Fridays, the teachers at each school gather to discuss the data gathered from the week through assessments in the online curriculum, observations from academic coaches and teachers, and overall course averages, among other growth factors. Using the data, teachers come up with a schedule of breakout sessions for the next week to provide targeted instruction; students receive the schedule on Monday morning.
How many breakout sessions a student goes to each day depends on the amount of support the student needs, but the average is about three sessions a day, said Mr. Conner.
Ms. Rodgers, from K12 Inc., said teachers do not provide direct instruction from the curriculum in those sessions, but specifically target problem areas for students. Breakout sessions include no more than 15 students at a time.
Parents also have access to the data portal so they can see their children’s progress, and students themselves can see exactly where they are and what they need to do to reach their goals.
In addition to breakout sessions, students attend a daily advisory session, aimed at helping them learn skills to prepare for college and the workplace.
Outside of the breakout and advisory sessions, students have the autonomy to make up their own schedules. Although students are required to hit weekly goals to keep on track, they are allowed to choose when and how they reach those goals on their own. For instance, if a student wants to work on math all day Monday and on English/language arts all day Tuesday, that’s fine, Mr. Conner said.
That flexibility also allows students to move at their own pace, spending extra time on subjects in which they may need more help, he said, or quickly moving through parts of the curriculum they have already mastered. That’s one of the reasons students are attracted to the flex model, he said.
Flora and Diana Chen, 16-year-old twins in 11th grade at the school, embody two of those reasons.
San Francisco Flex Academy received an overall score of 644 on California’s Academic Performance Index, or API, for 2011, putting it in the 20th percentile of schools in the state with a comparable grade range and 156 points shy of the statewide goal for all schools. On the California Standards Tests, 9th graders at the school performed almost as well as the state average in English/language arts: They had a 56 percent passing rate, compared with the 57 percent average. The school’s students lagged behind the state averages in all other subjects and grade levels, but the student-retention rate was high. Silicon Valley Flex Academy has been open for only one full year, so data on its student achievement are not yet available.
SOURCE: California Department of Education
“The reason that I came to Flex is because I was not doing well in my [former] school and … our class sizes were really big,” said Flora Chen, who says her scores on the California Standardized Tests, or CSTs, were below basic in almost all subjects before she came to her new school.
“I wanted to start over somewhere different,” she said. “Maybe I could do better.”
Flora is starting her second year at the school. She is now enrolled in three Advanced Placement classes and in precalculus, she said. The support and confidence of her teachers and academic coaches have allowed her to excel in a way she was not able to achieve in her previous school, she said.
Diana Chen said she came to SF Flex because “my old school was too easy for me.”
“I had a perfect record throughout the whole year in 9th grade, and there was no challenge,” she said. “It felt kind of like cheating.”
However, despite her straight A’s at her previous school, when Diana received her scores on the CSTs, she found that she ranked about average on some of her core subjects, while in others she was below average.
Now that she’s starting her second year at SF Flex, she said she no longer has straight A’s, but “it doesn’t feel like I am cheating. It feels like I earned it.”
The transition to a blended environment was hard for her at first, Diana Chen said.
“In a public school system, you’re in a classroom and the teacher is always pushing you, so you never really have to push yourself much,” she said. “So when I came here, the first semester I got really behind because the course was pretty easy, and I thought I could do it tomorrow.”
She said that with the help of her teachers and academic coaches, she has now become more organized and self-directed, two skills she expects will help her succeed in college.
While both Flex academies are still gathering a baseline of data by which to better measure overall academic growth and success, parent and student satisfaction with the schools is high, both heads of school said.
“We’re still working on refining the best ways to determine the success of these models,” said Ms. Rodgers from K12 Inc. “We want to know that the academic investment is paying out in the end.”
The 216-student Silicon Valley Flex Academy, which serves grades 6-12, is now in its second year. It is part of the school district operated by the Santa Clara County Office of Education, which oversees the county’s charter schools and alternative education programs.
The school’s bright, marble-floored two-story lobby fans out into two wings—one for middle school and one for high school. The building was originally built for a mortgage company, said Jean Southland, Silicon Valley Flex’s head of school. That explains the detailed molding and luxurious restrooms, more reminiscent of an upscale department store than a public school.
Although the first floor is taken up by open, office-like rooms of study carrels and classrooms, the second floor is largely empty.
“Room to grow,” Ms. Southland said with a smile.
Both wings of the school open up into large areas where rows of study carrels snake through the room. Each cubicle is equipped with a laptop computer. Pinned to the side of each workstation is the student’s name, a list of the expectations of students while they are at school, and a sheet where students have filled out their goals for middle school, high school, college, and careers.
Progress-tracking is clearly visible throughout the flex centers in the Silicon Valley Flex Academy. For the high schoolers, there is a paper baseball diamond hung at the front of the room with student ID numbers scrawled on paper baseballs lining the baselines. The bases have percentages on them, representing students’ overall course averages, Ms. Southland said.
Students receive incentives, such as permission to have lunch off campus, for rounding the bases and making significant progress, she said.
In the middle school flex center, two separate race-car bulletin boards track student progress in English/language arts and math. Students’ paper race cars move through the track based on the percentage of the curriculum they have finished.
Unlike the high school curriculum, K12 Inc.'s middle school curriculum is mastery-based, which means that students must score 80 percent or higher on assessments to determine mastery before they can move on to the next objective.
Middle school students are required to master at least 90 percent of the curriculum by the end of the year, which averages out to about one lesson a day, said Ms. Southland.
Preparing for College
Connecting precollegiate education to college and career readiness is a major focus of the flex program, Ms. Southland said. All of the breakout rooms at the Silicon Valley academy are named after colleges, and students at the school also attend advisory sessions focused on real-life skills that will help them succeed in college and the workplace.
On a Tuesday morning in late September, science teacher Jessica B. Keybl led her advisory class in a discussion about what to look for when visiting potential colleges. She went through a list of such questions as “What percentage of students live on campus?” and “What kind of meal plans are available?” with a group of 11th graders.
Ms. Keybl came to Silicon Valley Flex Academy when it opened in 2011-12, she said. “I really loved the small class-size situation,” she said, “and the ability to really extend student learning with projects and critical-thinking activities.”
She teaches biology, chemistry, and 8th grade physical science. The flex model encourages and empowers students to take control of their own learning, even at a young age, according to Ms. Keybl.
“One of the things that I’ve seen with our students here, especially with our middle school students, is they have to take so much responsibility for what they’re doing and keeping themselves organized and on task … that once they get the hang of it, they’re really set,” she said. “I’m excited to see when they make that transition to college. They’ll already be their own personal time managers.”
Gurroop Khasla, a senior at Silicon Valley Flex, said having face-to-face teachers to support her work in the online curriculum is essential to her success.
"[There are] times when I’ll do a lesson, and I don’t quite understand what they’re saying, but then when I go to breakout … they’ll teach and I’ll understand what they’re saying … because someone actually told me,” she said. “And it’s different when someone tells you rather than just reading it.”
Junior Camille DeRome agreed with Ms. Khasla and added that having the opportunity to collaborate with other classmates helps her learn.
“Sometimes I will learn better if I explain it to someone else, or if they explain it to me,” she said.
Ms. Southland, the head of school, added: “As the administrator watching, it’s great to go and see, because you see that kids are talking, but when you get close you realize they’re actually having academic conversations, which is really powerful. At their age, that peer-to-peer interaction, we know that so much more learning happens in that kind of environment.”
Joseph Davey and Gurbhej Khasla, both seniors at Silicon Valley Flex, agreed.
“We’ll have conversations about current events and stuff going on in the news,” said Mr. Khasla, the twin brother of Gurroop Khasla. “The other day, Joey and I were having a conversation about history and how the political scheme has changed over time and the four different stages of federalism.”
“We had a pretty good debate going on,” Mr. Davey said.
A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2012 edition of Education Week as Flexible Learning a Motivator