School board unanimously approves 'blended learning'

What is being called the Worton Campus, formerly Worton Elementary School, is the site for the Kent County Blended Learning Academy that was approved Monday night.

ROCK HALL — In an effort to reclaim some of the students Kent County Public Schools has lost to homeschooling, at its meeting Monday, the district introduced a new program for the 2019-2020 school year: Kent County Blended Learning Academy.

Tracey Williams, supervisor of student services and secondary education; Gina Jachimowiz, director of teaching and learning; and Angela Holocker, coordinator for student services, presented information about the program, which was unanimously approved by the school board.

KCLA requires a total minimum of 20 middle and high school-aged students to enroll in order for it to be cost effective, according to Monday night’s presentation. The projected cost is $104,228.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Williams said two students already committed to participating in KCLA after information was sent out to homeschooled students earlier that morning.

“I think what we’re trying to do is, is not every kid learns in the traditional way maybe we did. Some students just work and learn differently,” Williams told the school board Monday night. “And that’s OK and that’s what we’re trying to accommodate.”

At its core, KCLA will provide students the ability to enroll in KCPS without having to attend the “brick and mortar” schools.

“And I think more and more school systems across the nation, but definitely in the state of Maryland, we are seeing more and more students with anxiety,” Williams said. “And, you know, we think that this is a way in which we can help certain students and not lose them to home hospital or homeschooling.”

Students will be enrolled in the online learning platform Apex Learning where they will have a “virtual teacher” available to them 12 hours a day, five days a week.

Apex Learning will provide an online curriculum and course materials, instruction by certified teachers, online tutoring as well as other services. KCPS will provide “program goals and guides,” student expectations, enrollment requirements and recruiting as well as onsite mentoring.

The students also will be required to attend onsite classes at the former Worton Elementary School — which, for the purpose of KCLA, is being called the Worton Campus.

The site also is the school district’s bus depot.

From 7:25 a.m. to 2:20 p.m. middle school students will attend class at the Worton Campus on Tuesdays and high school students will attend on Wednesdays. The students also will have the option of attending on Thursdays if they feel they need extra mentoring.

Transportation will not be provided for the students, though meals will be.

School officials said one of the most significant benefits of KCLA is students who graduate through the program will earn a Maryland high school diploma. Homeschooled students do not receive a Maryland diploma when they graduate.

Additionally, because the students will be enrolled in KCPS, they will be eligible to participate in any activities offered at the schools such as theater, band, athletics and academic honor societies.

“We want these kids to be a part of our Kent County Public Schools environment and our culture. So these students, they’re going to be our kids. So when you are our students, that means you can be a part of drama, you can be in the band, you are our student,” Williams said. “And we think that is a piece that we can offer that currently they may not be getting at this point in time.”

Williams said there is no other blended program like this being offered in Maryland. Existing programs are completely virtual.

KCPS’s program is offered at no cost to students.

Students also will be taking tests onsite with proctors to make sure it is “that student doing the work and that they’ve mastered that content,” Williams said.

Williams said having summative assessments that are proctored helps “keep the integrity” of the program and prevents students from taking a test 10 times in order to get the best grade possible, for example.

“Because we’ve got to keep the integrity, you have to keep the integrity of it. So the online is the tool, but our people are really what keeps the integrity of the program and the relevance of the method,” Williams said.

Williams further explained the funding breakdown as $4,200 per student for grades six through 12 with eight courses offered and tutorials. Consulting, progress monitoring and professional development will cost $3,500. Then for the onsite mentor, who will be a certified Maryland teacher, the maximum cost at $30 an hour for 108 days of teaching equals $22,735. The minimum cost for a mentor for 74 days of teaching is $16,728.

Superintendent Karen Couch accounted for the variance because students enrolled in the program are not required to subscribe to the same school calendar as students who attend brick-and-mortar schools. For example, a homeschooled student can attend virtual classes even on holidays and when there are professional development days for teachers.

Couch said there might be grant money available to help pay for KCLA, but she will not know if the district has received that money for at least 20 days.

Using data submitted to the state last September, Kent County’s enrollment for 2019-20 is down 20 students from 2018-19, Couch told the board.

Having 20 homeschooled students re-enroll could help make up for that loss, Couch said.

Holocker said about 103 students are currently being homeschooled in Kent County, with 67% of those students being monitored by the district. These students are not part of a Maryland State Department of Education program, which means that Holocker, representing KCPS, must complete reviews twice a year with these students to make sure they are receiving an education.

Excluding elementary-aged students, of the 103 homeschooled students, there are currently 52 potential participants for the 2019-2020 school year.

In her presentation to the board, Holocker said some of the reasons that parents are choosing homeschooling in Kent County are due to religion, mental health or medical issues, bullying, disciplinary concerns or the recent consolidation of the elementary schools.

“I mean, here’s what we’re really interested in. It’s not just, yes, we want these students back. We think we can educate them and give them a quality education,” Williams said. “So through the online, that’s where you can get your rigor and your relevance. So again, it’s the curriculum that’s aligned to Maryland standards, but it comes with an online virtual teacher.”

With the board approval, Williams said she will provide an update on the program at the next board meeting Aug. 12.

According to the timeline, support staff will be hired or assigned in August with onsite “functionality training” beginning in mid-August. The program is not expected to be launched until September.

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