Busting the Zip Code Curse with Blended Learning

In this sputtering recovery many zip codes in the U.S. remain mired in high unemployment and poverty, according to a report measuring wealth levels by ZIP code. Large swaths of the country are indeed being left behind by economic growth and change.
Of the 50 million people living in the most distressed ZIP codes, 52 percent live in the South where the most distressed ZIP codes tend to be in rural places. The solution to entrenched rural poverty is complex but may start with reinvigorated secondary and career education.
“It’s not just about graduation, it’s about community vitality,” said Liang Chee Wee, president of Northeast Iowa Community College (NICC). Wee and the NICC faculty work closely with Howard-Winneshiek Community School District to create pathways to employment. Like Wee, Howard-Winn superintendent John Carter is a passionate advocate for Howard County as a great place to live and work.
Howard County leaders exhibit a special appreciation for the local-global connection, a possible key to rural economic vitality. The Howard-Winn mission is to prepare and empower students to think creatively, serve, contribute and succeed locally and globally. They specialize in Leveraging External Partnerships. Students work in manufacturing, trail film crews, and take technical college classes. Programs like FAA connect school and farm. Agricultural Education Teacher Mike Adams said, “It’s really like a GAT (gifted and talented) program for our ag students because they can use what they’re learning from class.” Howard-Winn’s commitment to personalized learning is featured in several Department of Education Future Ready videos.

Reimagining rural schools

As noted in 2013, nearly 150,000 schools were closed in the U.S. in the last century in waves of consolidations owing to budgets, busing, algebra and football. Conventional wisdom was that bigger was better and cheaper. Many of the schools were in rural towns where losing a high school was a big economic and cultural blow.
Rural schools face “shrinking local tax bases, federal and state education funding inequities, challenges in recruiting and retaining highly effective teachers and leaders, limited access to Advanced Placement, and International Baccalaureate courses, and the out-migration of young people and professionals,” according to a report on rural high schools from the Alliance for Excellent Education.
“Online learning levels the playing field for students in rural areas,” said Susan Patrick, President & CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning. “It helps principals in isolated areas find teachers in high-demand subjects including advanced math, physical sciences, foreign languages and computer science. Online and blended classrooms allow rural schools to expand their course offerings and bring in unprecedented exposure to rigorous, world-class content and resources.”

Digital Idaho

A Public Impact report says technology holds great potential to transform rural education by ensuring that every child has access to great instruction, year after year. The report commissioned by Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho, an initiative of the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, points to online learning as part of the solution, “students could take an online course from an excellent physics teacher who lives where she chooses and teaches remotely,” and “the district is able to offer physics without hiring an underqualified teacher or drawing from a small or nonexistent candidate pool.”
Student across Idaho access courses from the state’s virtual school Idaho Digital Learning Academy (IDLA) for asynchronous and blended learning models. Sugar-Salem High School embraced digital learning early on. They require students to complete an online course before graduation.
Twin Falls High School is implementing a blended learning approach. The science team “has really embraced this format and been working with other teachers across the state interested in duplicating it,” according to IDLA staff.
In Rural Innovators in Education, Terry Ryan points to a great partnership with a local school district and the Upper Carmen Charter School, an innovative 90 student multiage K-8 blended model.
Ryan, CEO of nonprofit Bluum, an advocate for great Idaho schools, is also excited about the 16 high school PTECH Network which “links education and industry by providing students with the credentials and skills needed to secure well-paying jobs in Idaho’s high growth industries while giving businesses access to a qualified pipeline of employees.”
In addition to improved viability of small rural schools, rural families have expanding educational options. About 6,000 Idaho families have chosen Idaho Virtual and Idaho Connections Academy.

Rural Blends

Small rural schools can act local but think global. The mission of Iowa’s Howard-Winn district  is to prepare and empower students to think creatively, serve, contribute and succeed locally and globally. The Howard-Winn team specializes in Leveraging External Partnerships. Students work in manufacturing, with a film crew, and take technical college classes.  Programs like FAA connect school and farm. Agricultural Education Teacher Mike Adams said, “It’s really like a GAT (gifted and talented) program for our ag students because they can use what they’re learning from class.”
Blended learning incorporates digital content into coursework and supports extended credit recovery and advanced course options. In central Michigan, Ovid-Elsie Area Schools opened a blended learning early college high school with Connections Learning and Baker College.
Online learning “enables teachers to have the most advanced learning technology tools to teach and communicate with students and other teachers and experts anywhere, any time,” said Susan Patrick. “It provides students with flexibility to move at their own pace, while building a wide range of competencies, skills and technology literacies — arming them with the knowledge and experiences necessary to succeed in 21st century schools and work environments.”
Flex model schools feature an online curriculum that allows individual progress and onsite support. We think there are 12 Reasons Every District Should Open a Flex School. Number six on that list is that flex models make it easy to run very good very small high schools. Where it would have been difficult to serve 100 students with a traditional comprehensive high school model, a flex program can offer every AP course, every foreign language, every high level STEM course, all in an affordable and well supported environment. There’s no reason to close a small school and put kids on a bus for an hour.

The Rural Micro-school Opportunity

Three themed academies in the Kettle Moraine School District started with two teachers and 40 students, a pretty good basic building block for a rural micro-school. Like KM academies, micro-schools can combine live classes with lead teachers, online classes with teachers at a distance, community learning experiences and team projects.
Small blended rural schools could be located in libraries, community centers, museums, or at a community college branches (like Quest in Humble Texas). Business could host a microschool like the 15 learning centers of GPS Education Partners which partners with 35 eastern Wisconsin districts to provide a two year blended and applied high school program (see case study).
Rural micro-schools could be operated by:

  • a district in hub-and-spoke model (potentially serving out of district communities under contract);
  • local districts in partnership with a national network (like New Tech Network) providing platform, curriculum, convening, and training resources;
  • a non-profit network (like GPS Education Partners) under contract with local districts; or
  • a statewide charter network.

Want to develop your rural micro-school concept? Check out 4.0 Schools Tiny Fellowship, it’s specifically designed for people working on their ideas, but who haven’t quit their jobs yet.
Like Minnesota New Country, small schools could be teacher-led schools–a likely structure in 2-4 teacher platform-centric micro-school networks.  
A national foundation could co-sponsor 200 rural micro-schools for about $10 million. Local and regional foundations and corporations could provide matching funds. An initiative like this could save dozens of struggling schools by allowing them to flip to a sustainable flex model. It would also allow dozens of communities to reopen a high school.
Public Impact notes two ways states can help. Rural schools and communities need a more robust technology infrastructure. Rural schools and students need more flexible policies—such as seat time and line-of-sight requirements—to tap into the full potential of technology.
For more, see:

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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