Feature                                                      Pages 33-35

Flexible Learning Days

Lost instructional time because of inclement weather? Not when a district mobilizes its technology and its staff to keep the academics on course

On a sun-filled, 70-degree day during the opening week of school back in August, a group of superintendents from our area in east-central Minnesota gathered to talk about bone-chilling cold, heavy snow and howling winds. This was a meeting with the National Weather Service, and we were there to prepare for the winter.

These mind pictures were superimposed over visions of us in the morning’s wee hours trading road-condition intelligence with our transportation directors, weighing safety concerns and educational needs as we made the agonizing decision whether to close school. Yet for me, half of the weight has been lifted because of what we call flexible learning days in our school district.

 Haguen Feature
Jay Haugen, superintendent in Farmington, Minn., with students using iPads in class.

The National Weather Service called last winter historic, even by upper Midwest standards. School districts in the metropolitan area of Minneapolis and St. Paul closed six days or more. Schools in more rural areas shut down 10 times or more with additional late starts and early dismissals. No matter how comprehensive the makeup plan for lost time in class, learning was adversely affected. In Farmington, though, along with a growing number of districts across the country, students kept learning and our teachers kept teaching, mostly from the comfort of their own homes.

Lofty Aspirations

Farmington Area Public Schools, a district of 7,000 students located south of St. Paul, straddles the border between suburban and rural and reflects a community varied in its viewpoints and priorities.

Three years ago we convened a diverse group of leaders to ask them what they wanted for their children’s education. The result was inspiring … and of course challenging. They asked us to customize an education for every child; to find and support the strengths, talents and abilities in each student; to connect students much more to our community; and to help students become self-directed agents of their own learning. Undergirding all this was the belief that children should be able to move at their own pace, creating individualized learning pathways. Wow!

Clearly, such an education in publicly funded schools was not possible for all students — until now. Through mobile, anytime/anywhere learning, using devices that bring the world into students’ hands, that let students manipulate it and create around it, students can personalize their own learning. And while we had no experience with these devices in our schools and no external or surplus resources available to purchase them, within a single year, without a referendum or a grant, we provided every student, K-12 with an iPad, and we connected every teacher, student and family member together on a single learning platform, Schoology.

How we managed this is another story, but given our strategic direction, we could do nothing less. This context led us to flexible learning days.

A First Embrace

The 2013-14 school year was our second with iPads. One intriguing effect we witnessed was that in many classrooms, students seldom fell behind when they missed a school day. Their academic work, teacher videos, links to other resources, assessments — everything they would need to keep learning — was available on Schoology. So when the governor called off school in early January, with the following day looking just as bleak, a middle school principal suggested we apply this concept to our whole district.

As an organization, we have developed the habit of saying “yes” to great ideas, ideas that excite, ideas that fit our strategic direction, ideas that serve the needs and highest aspirations of our students. And so we embraced the idea and worked with staff and notified families we intended to make up the second missed day digitally. A day of learning would be available online by President’s Day weekend, but we would allow a longer window of time in case families already had plans.

Many of our staff ran with the idea. Some had classes already set up so students just naturally kept learning. In fact, we could tell through our metrics that students were online doing their classes on what was a snow day in other communities. Other teachers who were ready early posted the independent work they had created, and students completed it well before President’s Day. Only half of our staff needed to post anything on the target date.

Understandably, these new expectations had a few snafus, owing to miscommunication. Some families waited anxiously for students’ assignments, not realizing their children were caught up. The online learning was so natural for the students they often didn’t realize they were caught up themselves.

With the wintry weather unrelenting, we missed four days by President’s Day. Yet many teachers and students stayed on track with their plans. Others waited diligently for their first flexible learning day, which became the busiest weekend we had seen for our digital learning platform.

 A typical winter day in the Farmington, Minn., schools, where a flexible learning schedule minimizes lost instructional time owing to the weather.

Parental Notice

After we completed a comprehensive assessment of our first flexible learning day, we agreed to continue. We alerted everyone that in the future students would learn from home and teachers would teach from home during a school closing. Here is an excerpt of a message I sent to Farmington parents:

“We are lucky to be able to address a school closing so naturally, through a flexible learning day. Because of our digital learning platform, Schoology, and the fact that over 95 percent of our students have Internet access in their home, the learning does not stop. If school is cancelled tomorrow (or any day in the future for that matter), the plan will be to have all teachers post work by 10 a.m.for the students they would have seen that day.”

My letter also summarized the feedback we received from parents and students after the first day.

The implementation of an innovative solution to an unprecedented problem was not without difficulty. Parents told us “too much work was assigned,” “no work was assigned,” “did not hear back from their teacher,” “felt unprepared to help my children” and “my child is too young to be self-directed.”

We used this feedback to improve, finding that most issues came down to communication and moderating expectations. This gave us a great opening to talk with families about the nature of learning and about all the online resources now available to help students.

We received lots of positive feedback from our second flexible learning day, three days after the first. When spring finally arrived, I was able to report to the school board and community that every student would be caught up educationally by the end of the year, having made up four of our six missed days flexibly.

We made improvements and now see this as a solution to more than just school closings. We now consider flexible learning as a way to provide additional instruction throughout the school year and summer and to make more flexible use of time for such things as professional development.

Positive Views

We surveyed our community last spring to get quantitative feedback around a host of related topics. We learned that 98 percent of families now have Internet access at home. We also learned that 72 percent support or strongly support our use of iPads; 57 percent support making up snow days at home (26 percent opposed and 18 percent were unsure); and 62 percent favor flexible, hybrid courses.

We also have been working with the commissioner of education in Minnesota. It comes as no surprise that there is not a box to check on state reporting documents to account for these days. We are assured we will not lose funding or suffer penalty for our efforts. Because of our designation as one of Minnesota’s first educational innovation zones, we believe our new designs for education can pave the way for others.

Finally, it is important to note that we were not the only school district in Minnesota to use flexible learning last winter. Personally, I am sleeping better this winter knowing that student learning will continue in Farmington, no matter the amount of accumulating snow or the bone-chilling temperatures, no matter the decision of that darn superintendent to close school.

Jay Haugen is superintendent of the Farmington Area Public Schools in Farmington, Minn. E-mail: jhaugen@farmington.k12.mn.us. Twitter: @Soup192

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