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An independent study school builds positive student-teacher relationships with the help of an online solution


Visions In Education (Visions), a public charter school serving students across nine counties in California, offers two independent study academies for high school students, as well as a home school program for students in grades K–12.

Students who enroll in the University Prep Academy tend to be “accelerated learners, really curious learners,” said Jody Graf, the executive director of the school. Students in the College and Career Prep Academy are often at risk and credit deficient.

Before 2014, the curriculum for the high school independent study academies came from traditional textbooks and online resources that Visions created based on the textbook material. But this approach was not ideal. Teachers had trouble monitoring students effectively since they met with students only once every ten days. In addition, since the online resources were homegrown, “keeping the content consistent and coherent was a challenge,” noted Tom Tafoya, the director of business and technology at the school.

To meet the diverse needs of the University Prep and the College and Career Prep students and to establish coherence, consistency, and accountability in the academies, Visions implemented GradPoint®, a set of online courses and services now part of the Pearson Connexus suite of offerings, starting in the 2014–2015 school year. The school provides students in both academies with a Chromebook for doing their course work and provides low-income students with a MiFi device.

The broad array of courses allows Visions to cater to the differing needs of students in the academies. University Prep students can take advantage of the honors courses. College and Career Prep students can use the courses to recover credits.

Even though students take a wide array of classes, the online resources have been the “great equalizer,” according to Sarah McFarland, the associate director of instruction.

From the student’s perspective, McFarland said, “you have all six classes that look the same, with consistent navigation. You have similar types of assignments.” Because the school has eighteen weeks in a semester, curriculum developers modified the course content so that each course is exactly eighteen weeks long. All quizzes and finals are weighted the same, no matter what the content is, explained McFarland. There is an “amazing uniformity that is so beneficial for kids,” she said.

Graf observed, “Being able to deliver consistent content to students so that we can look at learning between and amongst students” has enabled Visions to compare “apples to apples. We have more confidence in our metrics. We can have better conversations about our metrics. That lets us adjust and monitor the goals that we have for students and ensure that students are accomplishing what they need to accomplish and reach their academic targets.”

The courses have also helped to transform the relationship between teachers and students in the independent study academies. Because teachers have 24/7 access to the system, they “can see at any moment by logging in if students are struggling or if they are being successful,” McFarland commented. Teachers can then reach out to students in a timelier manner, “providing better support for kids on an ongoing daily basis.”

When teachers meet individually with students every ten days, “instead of spending that hour focused on what assignments students did or didn’t do, they can focus on fostering a deep relationship, building trust, working on soft skills, working on how to be motivated,” McFarland said.

We are getting away from conversations about work completed and having more conversations about students owning their learning.

—Sarah McFarland, Associate Director of Instruction

“You get to know kids at a deeper level,” Frederick Lamora, the director of instruction, remarked, “and when you do, they see that you care for them. We operate by the thinking that students don’t care what you know; they want to know that you care. And then they just perform differently when that happens.”

“We have a lot of kids that weren’t doing well at school until they came to us, and now they’re doing well,” Lamora concluded. “I would say some of it is due to the content; some of it is due to the different kind of relationship they have with the teacher.”

To learn more about how an online solution has helped Visions In Education create positive student-teacher relationships, read the full success story.

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