WELLSBORO - A half dozen teachers and administrators from regional schools last week attended a rollout of the updated "BlendedSchools.net" online curriculum program, designed to make it more user friendly.
Two people from the organization - Chris Davis, instructional support coordinator and Melissa Rager, school support coordinator - facilitated the training session, which also included online input from Mark Radcliffe, Blended Schools director of professional development, and Tracy Colbert, learning technology coordinator, who also acted as moderator.
Davis described the Blended Schools program as "online programs that the districts offer in their own districts as an alternative to cyber charter schools."
"Students get all the benefits of being part of the local school district. They have local teachers and are still a part of the learning community, but their mode of attending is different," she said.
In the five years Davis said she has been with Blended Schools, she has seen an increase in attendance.
"All online learning programs are seeing an increase," she added.
Davis explained that the curriculum is developed by Blended Schools and shared with the district "and they enroll students and use their existing teachers to teach the courses."
In order to share in the curriculum, the district pays an annual membership fee, based on how many user accounts they have.
"There is not an additional cost to students or families, so it is just another way of offering education," she added.
For the membership fee, districts get access to curriculum, professional development and training for teachers, as well as their learning management system, which is the software used to access the courses, Davis said
"The courses are aligned to common core standards, the same ones the district is required to use in their courses as well," she added.
Among those in attendance were Ben Largey, of Wellsboro, school psychologist and coordinator of online programs.
Largey said the reason his district became users of Blended Schools was "to give us another option to cyber charter schools."
"But some things have happened in the last couple of years in taking on online learning to prepare students for beyond high school. It has evolved into the way we do things, with courses that are right in the regular schedule to basically teach students how to do online learning," he said.
According to Largey, starting with the freshman class next year, it will be a graduation requirement to take one online course between ninth and 12th grades.
Southern Tioga School District Director of Special Education Curriculum Kelly Higgins said Southern Tioga has been onboard with Blended Schools for about 12 years and was "one of the initial members."
Higgins said Blended Schools can offer students an alternative to leaving school altogether.
"Another advantage of Blended Schools is, if kids are planning on dropping out, we are trying to save them with an additional option," she said.
Emily Ostrom-Graham, coordinator of student academic programs at Troy High School, said her district has been in it from an early point as an addition to classroom teaching.
"We've been working to turn it back into our main course," she said.
Largey said getting teachers on board with the program was fairly easy, and now he has a waiting list of instructors interested in teaching the courses.
"I started with people I knew who wanted to do it and now we have a waiting list of people who want to be trained," he said.
Starting with a core group "from there, it went to word-of-mouth," he added.
"Each year we have trained 15 or so and, last year, I told the entire district about 15 slots were open and it would be first come, first served. By the time I got back to my computer two hours later, the slots were taken," he said.
For grades nine through 12, teachers are required to learn enough to teach the district's graduation course, Largey said, but there are no requirements for kindergarten through eighth grade.
"It is all supplemental right now. Good teachers only have so much time, and I have those that are doing full-day duties and then adding some extra courses as well," he added.
Training sessions are offered several times per year in various formats, Radcliffe added.
"If you are training teachers to become quality online teachers, it only makes sense to give them a quality experience, including live onsite, live online, a self-paced online module with pro feedback, free weekly live online sessions (and) free massive open online courses, in which you can complete work in your own timeline," he said.