Evolving beyond full-time virtual: A Q&A with District 49’s Andy Franko

May 24, 2017 | by Julia Freeland Fisher

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In 2009, District 49, a suburban school district in Colorado Springs, launched a virtual high school to offer a flexible learning option for alternative students. Since then, however, the district has adapted the program to a blended learning environment that provides students with face-to-face support throughout their learning process. Today, the district’s iZone Connect program includes three blended schools using various models, including Enriched Virtual, Flex, Individual Rotation and Station Rotation. Check out District 49’s BLU profile for a deeper program overview.

Julia Freeland Fisher recently chatted with iConnect Zone Superintendent Andy Franko about District 49’s transition from virtual to blended learning and the efficacy of their current blended approaches.

You began your blended journey with a fully virtual school in your district. What were the origins of that school?

Under the leadership of Kim McClelland and the District 49 board of education, Falcon Virtual Academy was developed in 2008 and opened in 2009 to serve a population of students who expressed a need for a flexible learning environment. In the beginning, the school was only allowed to take on district residents, but in year two, opened seats to students throughout Colorado. Using the full virtual model, a small space within the district was utilized to office staff and administration as well as meet with parents and students for enrollment and academic support. The full-virtual model was embraced by the board of education and community because it opened opportunities for students who desired to engage in school through a unique place and pace pathway. Additionally, over crowding of school facilities is an issue District 49 has faced and continues to face. Falcon Virtual Academy offered an avenue to relieve pressure created by increasing population.

When did you start to explore moving from a fully virtual model to a range of different models? What’s caused the need to diversify blended models?

By 2010, dramatic shifts in education and instructional philosophy began to take place at Falcon Virtual Academy. School administration shifted as Kim McClellend became the iConnect Zone Leader and David Knoche became the principal of FVA. Together, the two worked with board members and district administration to gain access to a building that once renovated, would allow for more blended education practice to occur. Once the building was acquired and later occupied, a deep focus on blended education which had been planned in concept, was implemented in reality. The facility allowed for students to have access to instructors, learning peers, and a learning application environment. The shift also opened the opportunity for instructional and administrative staff to gain new knowledge of best practice and deployment strategies.

Given that you now have four models on offer in your district, have you observed that certain students tend to gravitate towards specific models?

In the past year, we have shifted to a blended approach at Patriot High School, our Alternative Education Campus; and have opened Pikes Peak Early College, the first early college high school with a blended focus in Colorado. Because these options are new(er), we are only starting to see students who gravitate towards a specific model. That being said, our counselors and support staff have worked to best inform students of the differences and options available at each school. Because these are all district run choice schools, we have the opportunity to counsel students and families toward the best opportunity of success for each learner.

How did you go about selecting software tools to support blended learning?

The process of software selection has grown with our student and programmatic needs over time. Falcon Virtual Academy, had need of a self-driven curriculum as well as course management that was versatile and user friendly as much of the content was being delivered virtually at the home. As the model shifted, Falcon Virtual Academy became Springs Studio for Academic Excellence. With a new focus on blending instruction at a school site AND delivering content in a virtual space, software flexibility became more of a necessity. The school did not make a software change as these shifts occurred, but deepened the relationship with the software provider to customize the tools of curriculum and management to best support the needs. When new schools and models were being developed, many lessons learned were considered. Most importantly, content rigor and relevance as well as text complexity were considered for both Patriot High School and Pikes Peak Early College. It was not assumed that the software being deployed at Springs Studio would be impactful or advantageous when delivered to at-risk and accelerated students. In addition, as our practice of instructing in a blended environment has improved, the need for software flexibility has increased. We no longer rely on the software provider as we once did; rather, we now know specifically what were are looking for from our software and require greater flexibility.

What is the role of adults in the Enriched Virtual model’s brick-and-mortar setting? Are they basically traditional educators or are they performing different or unique tasks to support student success in the model?

Currently, we have a number of traditional teachers who are making the shift to performing as blended educators. Paul Austin, a science teacher at Patriot High School describes his path as one that has shifted from being a presenter of knowledge to one who facilitates the gaining of knowledge. We are working with Paul and his colleagues to continue to move instruction towards a deeper depth of knowledge through access and application. Our goal to see students engaging in content consumption is coupled with application based projects as students attain mastery.

What’s next for your blended learning model or blended learning across your district?

Focus and precision are two words that come to mind when we talk about what next for blended learning in District 49. We’ve spent a lot of time designing, implementing, reflecting, refining and adjusting. As a district, our mission is to be the best district to learn, work, and lead. A range of academic, and social – emotional needs are being addressed due to the learning and working that has taken place. While we do not intend to stop learning or stop working, we are getting more intentional about leading both within our district and beyond. As we lead, we will continue to enhance our focus and build toward precision in our practice.


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