Note: The information in this profile represents SY2012-13 unless otherwise indicated.
To see Quakertown Community School District’s SY2011-12 profile, click here.
Quakertown Community School District (QCSD) serves roughly 5,500 students in grades K-12. The district set up the Infinity Cyber Academy in 2008 with the hope of keeping high-risk students from dropping out of the system and offering more flexible course options for students with outside-of-school commitments and for those wishing to accelerate. The program began with a small number of students enrolling in supplemental online courses, either from an outside provider or developed and taught by QCSD teachers. The program has since expanded its scope to offer all students the opportunity to take an online course. Since 2009 the number of students enrolled in online courses has tripled. Now, roughly one-fourth of the district’s 2,966 students in grades 6-12 are taking at least one class online. QCSD currently offers a total 70 classes to students in grades 6-12.
Blended Learning Program
Program model: A La Carte
Students supplement courses taken at a brick-and-mortar school with online courses taught by district teachers. These online courses can be completed by students at home or during a cyber period at school. Students work at their own pace to complete their online courses and adhere to minimum pacing guidelines as set by teaching staff.
Blended-learning design and context
The design for QCSD’s blended-learning programs is based on the Self-Blend model. Students can complete their online courses at home or during a cyber period at school. Students work at their own pace to complete their online courses but must adhere to minimum pacing guidelines as set by teaching staff. Recognizing that independent online learning is not a good fit for all students, the district developed an initial assessment that students take to determine if online classes will fit with where they are in their learning. All students complete a cyber orientation course prior to enrollment in academic cyber courses.
Courses are asynchronous and students can work on them any time during the day or night. Many students take advantage of this option to work around vocational programs, work schedules, and extracurricular interests. Some students work on their online classes at home, whereas others work on them at school during cyber periods. QCSD has created designated areas in their middle and high schools for students to complete their online courses. These spaces are set up like comfortable cafes and are called cyber lounges. QCSD’s online courses allow students to move at their own pace and complete courses based on competency rather than being tethered to the traditional semester timeline.
QCSD teachers teach all online courses, with the exception of a few subjects (like Mandarin) for which there is no certified teacher in the district. QCSD also employs one full-time mentor to ensure that students are consistently and actively participating in their online coursework and one full-time employee who delivers technology support and professional development. About half of all QCSD teachers teach at least one online course, and three district teachers teach only online courses. Because most QCSD online teachers are also teaching face-to-face classes, students who are blending online and face-to-face classes have the ability to access most of their online teachers in person. Many online teachers host online and in-person office hours during their prep and cyber periods. The district invites all students who are taking online courses to participate fully in all school activities and sports.
In 2007, QCSD outfitted all its school buildings with wireless Internet access. As part of a desire both to increase flexibility around serving students with diverse academic needs and to deploy technology in a financially sustainable way, the district formed a technology stakeholder committee, which included teachers, administrators, the school board, community members, and IT experts. The committee’s charge was to develop and implement a plan for cyber learning. The committee began by launching a 1:1 netbook initiative and a network upgrade to accommodate a Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) program. In the first year, it purchased netbooks for every freshman and any student requesting a cyber course. This plan still remains in place, although more students are bringing their own laptops, netbooks, and iPads. Students keep their district-issued netbooks throughout their high school experience.
The committee investigated learning management systems and chose BlackBoard. They selected BlackBoard because a state collaborative (Blended Learning, Inc.) was able to secure a deal with the vendor that reduced the purchase price and included premium support for participating districts. QCSD made BlackBoard available to every student and teacher at the secondary level.
The district also partnered with the local Best Buy to offer discounts to families that decided to purchase their own laptops. QCSD worked with Verizon to offer high-speed Internet for $10 per month to low-income families. In a few instances, the district covered the $10 monthly fee as well, although that practice was limited because most homes, even those of low-income families, already had Internet access.
QCSD’s curriculum department and content area specialists reviewed options for purchasing third-party courses for the Infininty Cyber Academy. When this team began the purchasing process In 2008, most concurred that the options for quality online content were not promising. They believed courses purchased from providers did not have the rigor needed to meet Pennsylvania Standards nor the design to keep students engaged. Although the compressed timeline required the purchase of some courses, the team decided QCSD should develop its own cyber curriculum for the most part. The district had confidence in its standards-based program and decided to work closely with teachers to adapt their high level, rigorous courses to an online environment. The first year was a struggle because producing both quality content and design was time consuming.
After the first year, QCSD realized even more professional development time was needed for course development and began working closely with the teachers association to provide extra time and payment for teachers’ efforts.
Close collaboration with teachers was key. Also, the district found that using the BlackBoard interface for all courses and relying on a uniform template was helpful. For example, the first page of every course has the same look and feel–assignments on the left, announcements on the top right hand corner, and so forth. “At this point QCSD is extremely proud of the high quality of the district-developed courses and is confident of the alignment to the face-to-face requirements and rigor,” Superintendent Lisa Andrejko said.
QCSD uses its own teachers to teach its online courses, with the exception of a few courses that it cannot support with its own staff, such as Mandarin. Andrejko described the hiring strategy as follows: “It is almost an expectation that every new face-to-face-teacher hire has the aptitude to adapt to an online environment if needed. The district pays all teachers a highly competitive wage and looks for appropriate technology and student engagement skills in all new hires. With the exception of three teachers who teach cyber full-time, all other teachers teach both face-to-face and online courses, which requires excellence in traditional teaching. Many teachers have either taken an online course themselves and are very discriminating when it comes to quality in what they present as a representation of their teaching. Additionally, there is a high degree of ownership because they have developed the courses.”
QCHS has moved from a “block” schedule to a traditional schedule to free up teachers to teach online courses. Under the block schedule, each teacher spends six hours teaching courses and two hours planning; under a traditional seven-period schedule, each teacher spends seven hours teaching courses and one hour planning. Therefore, a switch away from the block schedule allows a reduction of staff by one teacher for every eight teachers. Most teachers at QCSD now use the extra period provided by this change to teach an online course.
Ongoing professional development
In the first year, the district anticipated that teachers would be able to develop courses without spending significantly more time, because most were using the same content for the online courses as they used for their face-to-face courses. The district also believed that the process of online course development was straightforward and teachers would need very little professional development to train them in how to build a course.
The district eventually contracted with Performance Learning Systems to provide more intense professional development. It also decided to compensate teachers extra for course development and for nearly 40 hours of training during the summer before and throughout their first year teaching online (at a flat rate of $30/hour). Teachers create online courses that are directly aligned to their face-to-face courses, which means they can spend their time adapting their curriculum to an online environment instead of doing preliminary research. All online teachers meet monthly for system updates and collaboration, and, more recently, to integrate Common Core Standards into online courses.
To implement this blended-learning model, QCSD spent $98,389 to hire two new support staff FTEs (a student mentor to monitor attendance and achievement and a program coordinator to provide technical assistance and professional development), $107,895 on equipment and supplies, and $56,755 on the learning management system and private providers. The 1:1 initiative also cost the district $500,000, which included the cost of devices and one technology-support FTE.
Because QCSD teachers maintain the same caseload whether teaching online or face-to-face, the per-pupil allocation is not affected by the switch to blended learning. The district realizes revenue increases, however, from students returning to the district from (or being kept from leaving the district for) cyber charter schools. In this regard, QCSD administrators figure they’ve maintained over $1.5 million in the last three years that would have left the district had students moved to or continued with cyber charter schools.
QCSD has not increased or reduced student-teacher ratios with blended learning. The model does improve the facility utilization rate, however. A new $60 million high school renovation project in the works does not include an increase in square footage even though it will accommodate increased enrollment.
QCSD has partnered with a regional services center to “teach” other school districts how to start their own cyber programs. This partnership, called Bridges Virtual Education Services, grossed $156,000 in 2011-12 and is predicted to gross over $200,000 in the 2012-13 school year. Additionally, during the summer of 2012 QCSD opened a virtual summer school program to surrounding school districts, which provided $20,000 of revenue to the district.
For financial reasons, QCSD administrators decided against investing in network infrastructure to handle the BYOD platform or on intensive professional development in the early days of the program.
During the 2010-11 school year, QCSD’s high school dropout rate decreased by 10 percent, due in part to the district’s ability to accommodate students who needed more flexibility in their schedules because of work or familial responsibilities. Andrejko anticipates that blended options will keep more students from leaving in the future.
In 2012 the district achieved its highest SAT, ACT, and state test scores to date. QCSD does not directly attribute these results to the availability of online courses, but administrators feel that these options have certainly contributed to this increase. In 2012, the College Board recognized QC High School on its Honor Roll for increasing the number of students taking AP courses and maintaining or increasing results.
The district has successfully partnered with the local teachers union in this blended-learning effort. The local union president has taught online classes and is partially responsible for the district’s professional development surrounding online learning. The superintendent notes that having union leaders onboard with online learning in a tangible way is a great step forward for reform.
In 2011 QCSD won the Innovator Award for Innovative Online Learning Practice from iNACOL, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.
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Name: Lisa Andrejko