West Chester Area School District blending together physical and digital classrooms

This article can be found published on the Daily Local News‘ website.
Students arrived at the Spellman Administration Building in West Chester to sign out a laptop for use in the high schools’ new blended courses. (Candice Monhollan)

Students arrived at the Spellman Administration Building in West Chester to sign out a laptop for use in the high schools’ new blended courses. (Candice Monhollan)

WEST GOSHEN — In an effort to continue to better prepare students moving for postsecondary education, the three West Chester high schools — East, Henderson and Rustin — are offering “blended” classes, giving the students the chance to take a course that involves both time in the physical classroom and online.

In preparation for the class, students and parents flocked to the Spellman Administration Building Tuesday to sign out laptops for the year to go along with the courses.

“It has opened up a lot more opportunities for students to take more advanced classes and more electives,” said June Garwin, director of Information Technology at the district.

This year, 10 blended courses total between the three schools will be offered.

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Those 10 include Honors Accounting 1 and 2, Honors Computer Programming in C and C++, AP Computer Science 1, Computer Science 2 Advanced and Extended Study, Stocks and Investments, German 1, Honors German 3 and AP German Language.

But that doesn’t mean each high school is offering the same blended courses.

“An example may be that German I is running at Rustin, but it’s not running at East or Henderson,” said Bob Sokolowski, directors of secondary education for the district. “There are little differences, but as far as what students were able to sign-up for, it was equal across the schools. These classes were already computer-based, or they’re courses that the group of teachers were very strongly interested in providing that platform for students.”

With these course becoming blended, it has actually brought back a lot of interest from the students.

West Chester tested out the idea of these blended courses four years ago during a pilot program, which turned out to be successful.

“We piloted three different blended classes at East, Henderson and Rustin,” Sokolowski said. “That ran for a year. We have moved from that and learned things that we wish we had done a little differently.”

Unlike the pilot program, which let the students choose if they wanted to take the course either blended or full in the classroom, the implementation this year doesn’t allow the choice.

“Our biggest challenge was that it’s such a change,” Garwin said. “Students wanted to be in class with (our teachers), not online with them. There’s that whole dynamic going on that you don’t get so much in colleges as you do in high schools. They might rather be face-to-face than online.

“In our pilot, we were evaluating where one class was face-to-face and one was blended. Kids were opting which they wanted. This year, the courses are just blended.”

However, each blended course does have different options as to the amount of “blending.”

For example, Honors Accounting 1 and 2 will spend four days in a classroom and one day online, but AP Computer Science 1 will spend three days in a classroom and two days online.

“What impacted that was the aspect of taking a look at students’ schedules and trying to avoid those conflicts (with other classes) so it allows students that, maybe in the past, would not have been able to carry that course,” Sokolowski said. “This is going to decrease the likelihood that students will have conflicts.”

The course implementation also comes at a time when the American Academy of Pediatrics has urged middle and high schools nationwide to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

In its research from a year ago said teens struggle to get enough sleep because their “natural sleep cycles make it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m.”

Such a dramatic change to the school system isn’t an easy thing and West Chester Superintendent Jim Scanlon said though delaying the start time is not a feasible option at this time, the blended classes can help some.

“If the course is offered during first period, this allows (students) to sometimes begin school a bit later,” he said an e-mail sent out to the community.

Though the courses were never meant with the intention of giving students more sleep, it does fall in perfectly with the study.

With the West Chester district set to start the 2015-16 school year Aug. 31, it seems the blended option will be a popular one.

“The number when we took it in the spring was 696 students in the fall,” Sokolowski said. “Some of those students could be the same, taking two courses in the blended format. It’s a very significant number when we go back to four years ago when we first tried it. We went from 90 to hundreds of students.”

The West Chester administration has high hopes for the new courses and, if all goes well, there are plans to expand it.

“Just given on the enrollments, I think there is an interest,” Sokolowski said. “We had a lot of conversations with a lot of teachers in a lot of departments. I would fully anticipate that if it’s going well, we will look at it, but it has to be good for kids and it has to be good for learning.”

Though the blended course will give some students the opportunity of rest, the overall reason for the courses are to better prepare them of what can be expected in colleges.

“Not that I don’t think sleep and the health of the child is really important, but when we were looking at this from a fundamental standpoint, we looked at aspects of student engagement and we looked at it in the sense of we want to do the best we possibly can to prepare our students for postsecondary learning experiences,” Sokolowski said. “We looked at it in the sense of preparing kids for future learning and preparing kids for future postsecondary opportunities.”

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