By Andy Franko

In 2009, Colorado District 49 began looking for ways to provide more flexible learning opportunities. We wanted to include as many students as possible, both to alleviate overcrowding in our brick-and-mortar schools and to attract students for whom a virtual model was the only way to keep them in the district.

Our mentality toward virtual learning in those early days was to just jump in and try it. The result was Falcon Virtual Academy, a multidistrict online K-12 school. Our district in Colorado Springs serves more than 20,000 students in 25 schools, but we decided to venture into the world of virtual education with just one school under the principle of “nail it before you scale it” and that Falcon Virtual Academy would serve as the pilot in order to make adjustments before expanding the model.

Our district has learned a great deal in the last six years and now has 10 schools that offer variations of the blended learning model. This year we will serve 8,500 K-12 students through rotation, flex or enriched virtual models.

For other districts considering a move toward blended learning, here are some of the lessons we’ve learned.

1. Blended Beats Virtual

Over the years, we’ve discovered that we get better results when our students spend time with us in a shared physical environment with teacher interaction. In response to this, we changed the name of Falcon Virtual Academy to Springs Studio for Academic Excellence. This change reflects the fact that our students, staff and board are focused on excellence through blended learning, not necessarily virtual learning.

For us, blended learning means that the majority of content is delivered online and students can go as a fast as they want—but not as slowly. They are held accountable by meeting with their instructors who know them and can monitor their progress.

2. Choose and Train the Right Teachers

It takes specific types of educators to engage in this process. We’ve got outstanding individuals because we’ve made recruiting and training a priority. We offer professional development before our teachers begin working in the blended environment, and ongoing online courses help us make sure that all of the staff are on the same page.

We also have a cohort of specialists called the iSolutions team. They work one-on-one with specific teachers as well as with groups of teachers to model what instruction should look like in our blended learning environment. They help create lesson plans, set up classrooms and work through any issues the teachers encounter.

3. Student Engagement is Essential

Before they can learn from the content, students need to learn how to engage with each other and their teachers in a blended environment. To help them get started, we offer a “How to Be a Blended Online Student” course.

We work with students on their independent learning skills, which include how to read and read well. Reading is essential in a blended environment, so we chose the Reading Horizons curriculum to meet the needs of students who have gaps in skills and build strong foundations in reading with age-appropriate materials delivered both online and through direct instruction.

The earlier students start in a blended environment, the easier it is for them to become responsible for their education and learning. Our commitment to building the foundations for reading in all of our students is reflected in our early literacy initiative. The goal is that all students will be reading at grade level by the end of third grade. We are now able to expand our literacy support to older students as well.

4. Parents Need to Be Educated, Too

When parents come to us about enrolling their children in one of our blended programs, we make sure they understand the expectations. Successful students will gradually become experts at independent learning as they develop self-direction and accept ownership for their education. Parents don’t always realize at the start how involved they’ll have to be, but we work with them to support their children in fulfilling the goals that they and the school have established.

Before students begin course work, we hold an orientation for parents to determine the family’s capability to support our systems when the student is not at school. This includes access to internet connectivity and a device. A small percentage of our families need financial support in this area, and we help them so that all students have equal opportunities.

5. You Need Support Over Time

We have been fortunate to work with committed teachers, principals and specialists, and we have gotten amazing support from the school board. We wanted to nail it before we scaled it, and it takes time to nail it. We’ve spent almost a decade in this space, and we’re still learning. The key for us is being open to making mistakes and adjusting for them quickly.

6. Decide What Scaling Means to You

Since beginning our blended learning initiative, our goals have shifted. Our initial goal was about the number of students; now it’s really about student performance and student achievement. We are heavily focused on internal assessments, delivering what our students need and making sure our students are college-ready.

For us, scaling is not about being as large as we can be, but as efficient as we can be. We aren’t aiming to increase our student population, but we are increasing the number of opportunities we can offer them. To do this, we have added two new schools in addition to Springs Studio.

  • Our alternative education center, Patriot High School, uses online education as well as direct classroom instruction with an emphasis on mastery learning to connect with students at risk.
  • Pikes Peak Early College prepares students for college by combining individualized blended learning with early college options. Students can take college courses and earn up to 60 credits or their associate’s degree before they graduate from high school. There is no charge to the students, so they can receive a college degree for free.

We look forward to offering a multitude of opportunities for our students. The structure is in place and we can now consider how to advance learning opportunities for each demographic within that structure. For example, we are looking for ways to support kids who participate in competitive activities and those training for the Olympics who have diverse schedules or extracurricular needs.

To us, scaling is ensuring that the opportunities we offer our students are solid and that models of delivery are flexible enough to meet the needs of our community and the demands of the future.

For more, see:

Andy Franko is the iConnect Zone Superintendent for District 49 in Peyton, CO. Follow him on Twitter: @iconnectzone


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