Rhode Island School Makes Learning “Personal” for Students

Students in a classroom, all seated around their laptops at individual desks, respond to a teacher standing at the front of the classroom at a white board.

Students get some face-to-face help from a teacher in the Village Green Virtual School Learning Center. Photo Credit: Village Green Virtual School.

Students move at their own pace toward mastering standards and college and career readiness.

Picture this. Sarah, a 10th-grader, is in the learning lab finishing up an assignment on Julius Caesar. She has one more test and a final to pass before she moves on to 11th-grade material. She can take the tests whenever she feels ready. She can then shift her attention to mathematics, where she is several assignments behind.

Meanwhile, Tammy is working on a 10th-grade grammar quiz. Grammar isn’t her strongest skill, but by working at her own pace, she is able to master the assignments. If she doesn’t pass the quiz, she can retake it as many times as necessary until she gets a passing score.  She can also ask her teacher for help, if she wants, or go to a workshop in the afternoon with other students struggling with the same lesson.

For observers of this scene from a visit in spring 2015, it may seem like student learning is all over the map at Village Green Virtual Charter School. That’s because it is—by design. Sarah and Tammy’s school, founded in Providence, Rhode Island in September 2013 serving grades 9–10 with plans to expand to grades 9–12, was created with the express goal of “personalizing” learning for every student through a “blended learning” model of online curriculum and in-classroom teaching.

Teachers at Village Green work with students who ask for help or who they can see are struggling to master skills or strategies using the online curriculum. The model is designed to enable teachers to focus their attention on targeting the learning needs of each student. Students work on some subjects longer than others if they need to, and teachers work with groups of students that all need help on a particular skill.

No day at Village Green is routine. “There’s absolutely no typical day here,” said Khori Lopes, an English teacher who joined the school the previous school year. “Everybody is working on different things all the time.”

The school’s design supports this fluidity. There are no classrooms or bell schedules.  Students rotate throughout each day between online learning, small workshops focused on addressing specific skill gaps and advisory or reading groups. As Rob Pilkington, the school’s founder and superintendent said, time is considered a variable, not a constant. “Time shouldn’t dictate the structure of student learning. If an English lesson takes two hours to complete on a given day, and a science activity takes a half hour to complete, then why should a bell schedule allow only one hour each?” said Pilkington.

Laboratory for Statewide Expansion of Blended Learning

Village Green is the first school of its kind in Rhode Island. With support from the Rhode Island Department of Education, the school has served as a learning laboratory for educators across the State interested in replicating its blend of online courses and teacher-led instruction.

The image is a textbox that quotes Holly Walsh, the Director of Instructional Technology and E-Learning at the Rhode Island Department of Education. It reads, "We need to identify and support early innovators and learn as much as we can so that later adopters can have a roadmap to guide them."

“We need to identify and support early innovators and learn as much as we can so that later adopters can have a
roadmap to guide them,” said Holly Walsh, who oversees Rhode Island’s Instructional Technology and E-Learning work. The State believes technology can have a transformative impact on educational outcomes and has launched an ambitious effort to become the first in the nation to adopt blended learning statewide.

“Digital learning in all of its forms provides…unlimited educational resources for every classroom, allows our schools to design flexible instructional schedules and enables students and teachers to work closely together at a pace that is right for each student,” said Deborah Gist, former Rhode Island Commissioner of Education.

And they are well on their way to making this vision a reality. In the 2014–2015 school year, almost half (14 out of 32) of districts in the State started to implement 1:1 blended learning models, and all schools had the high-speed wireless Internet access blended learning requires. The State also hosts an annual digital learning conference and partnered with Village Green to chronicle its model and lessons learned.

Online Platform Allows for Self-Paced Learning

Village Green uses an online curriculum, called “Edgenuity,“ which allows students to move through assignments at their own pace. Every student has a workstation where they log into their own personal Edgenuity portal and choose what to work on. Students take frequent tests and quizzes, and complete practice assignments. A data dashboard displays skills they’ve already mastered in green, those they are on track to master in blue and those they are struggling with in red.

Khori Lopes said the real-time data has been motivating. “My students are very competitive. They don’t like to see ‘red.’ Even if they don’t like the topic, they try really hard to get ‘green.’ We can take a student’s work habits and completion rates and predict their graduation date. This makes things much more real for students when they’re falling behind.”

The data also help Lopes. She can monitor the performance and progress of individual students or multiple students at once, including overall grades, percentage of work completed and idle time. “There’s no excuse for not knowing where they’re at because the data is so immediate,” said Lopes. “If someone’s having a bad day, I can say ‘let me check your session log’ and I’ll see they’ve only completed a few activities. That’s a great middle of the day intervention. I can ask them ‘is something bothering you today; do you need to talk?’”

Learning to Make Choices

Because students have more control over how they spend their time at school, they are constantly confronted with choices. “We’re teaching them to manage those choices,” said Lopes. “We are routinely asking, ‘Where are you seeing yourself falling behind? Do you really want to save all of your English for June?’ Students need to get into the habit of making lists and schedules.”

Students say they appreciate the flexibility. “I like that I can get ahead in certain courses and take more time in others,” said Mike, who started as a student at Village Green last year after six years of homeschooling. When Mike was in the 11th grade he had already completed pre-calculus, which is typically taken in the 12th grade. While he’s far ahead in mathematics, he was playing catch-up in English and history.

Jesus, an 11th grader last year, said he also appreciates that he is not limited to a structured curriculum that requires students to move in lockstep. However, with less than a month left of the school year, he still had to complete about a third of his mathematics assignments before he could move on to 12th-grade mathematics. He was confident he’d get there because he could ask for help any time to fill the gaps in his skills. “If I was in a regular public school, they’d just move on without me,” he said. “Here, I’m able to move at my own pace.”

Even graduation dates are flexible. Some students, like Madeline, are on track to graduate in three years. Madeline, now an 11th grader, finished 10thgrade English in early April and, as of mid-May, had only 10 days of geometry work left. This year, she plans to complete requirements for both 11th and 12th grades and earn her diploma by the end of the year.

Madeline’s trajectory is not uncommon at Village Green. Roughly 20 to 25 percent of students are on track to graduate in three years, some of them taking Advanced Placement or other classes that earn them college credit. But for other students, even the four-year path can be challenging. While this kind of flexibility is a core part of the school’s model, the reality has come as a bit of a shock to teachers and administrators. “When we first got into this, we thought every kid would start at the starting line together and finish together, but the proficiency model just doesn’t allow for this,” Pilkington said. This year, the school will provide more structured time for English and mathematics to keep students from falling too far behind. Students will have instruction in English and mathematics three times per week with certified teachers instructing using Edgenuity and other online sources. The goal is to have groups of students work in a blended environment where the teacher can have a higher degree of oversight and control over pace and assessment cycle. In all other subjects, like history, science and foreign languages, students will continue to have complete flexibility to move at their own pace.

Teachers are Critical to Student Success

When people hear about Village Green’s heavy reliance on technology, many assume that teachers are obsolete. Pilkington said this could not be further from the truth. “While tech is critical, it’s not about the tech,” he said. “It’s about the relationships and rapport between students and teachers.” Teachers are constantly interacting with students, either individually or in small group workshops geared toward a particular skill or lesson where students need extra support.

Pilkington actually had to hire more teachers part way through the first school year when he realized the 17:1 ratio of students to teachers wasn’t enough to give students the individualized attention they needed. “We need more teachers, not fewer” to make our model work, he said. By the second school year, the student to teacher ratio was 10:1.

Because students have more ownership over their learning, teachers play a very different role. As Pilkington described it, “teachers are facilitators and coaches. They partner with students to help them get to the next level in their learning.” While it may sound like teachers have it easy, this is hardly the case. To prepare for classes, teachers must take the Edgenuity course themselves (including lessons, units, quizzes, tests and exams) to understand what material is covered. “This is a huge amount of time and effort,” said Pilkington. Teachers analyze student data on a nightly basis to see where each student is and what they will need the next day, compile other online sources to supplement Edgenuity, and create standard lesson plans for teaching workshops or facilitating research projects.

The main things the teachers are freed from at Village Green are quiz and test construction, grading, and designing core lessons. “However, they still have to plan the workshop and plan to re-teach Edgenuity in case a lesson is not grasped,” explained Pilkington.

Model Is Not Without Challenges

Village Green has entered uncharted territory with its self-paced model, and this comes with plenty of unexpected challenges. For Kevin Cordeiro, a social studies teacher at Village Green, one of the biggest adjustments has been staying current on a wide range of subjects. “For the first three to four months, I had no idea if the first kid I talked to each day was going to ask me about medieval Europe or the Vietnam War,” he said.

While they don’t yet know how this will all play out, it is a critical part of the innovation journey. Schools like Village Green are helping to inform a national conversation about what it takes to truly personalize learning for every student.

Takeaways

  • Flexibility is key for teachers. Teaching in a self-paced school requires a high degree of flexibility in responding to where students are in their learning.
  • Just because students are computer savvy, does not mean they are intuitive e-learners. Village Green has had to train students to become proficient with the Edgenuity curriculum.
  • While technology is critical, it’s not about the technology. The relationships and rapport between teachers and students are essential for student success.
  • Students value self-paced learning. Students at Village Green appreciate the ability to move at their own pace and have ownership over their time.
  • Misalignment between State tests and the self-paced model is a challenge. As more schools move toward self-paced models, districts and States will need to consider how to better align State testing requirements with individualized learning approaches.

For updates on Village Green’s progress, check out the school’s website.

Tools and Resources