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Delco high school is pioneering a choice to learn at home, at school — or both

Garnet Valley, which serves the rapidly growing Concordville area, is pushing ahead this fall with an ambitious five-year goal to become what educators believe would be the nation's first public high school to offer all its courses either online or in a classroom, or both.

Kevin Smith and his mother Kim at kitchen table with his laptop. Soon at Garnet Valley HS students will be able to choose the format of their courses – either in class, online or a blended form of both.
Kevin Smith and his mother Kim at kitchen table with his laptop. Soon at Garnet Valley HS students will be able to choose the format of their courses – either in class, online or a blended form of both.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer .

As a freshman at Garnet Valley High School, Kevin Smith wasn't doing as well as he'd hoped last year in his Algebra II class until he decided midsemester to try it as a so-called blended course — with some of the work online and some in the classroom with his teacher.

"I like that. … You could do it on your own, go at your own pace," said Kevin, 15. "If you didn't understand something, you could always go back in the section and watch the videos over again as many times as you needed. The teacher was also available anytime you needed."

Kevin now is taking a completely online health class through Garnet Valley's eSchool, but in the fall he plans to stick primarily to traditional courses. It is a highly flexible hybrid approach to learning that officials in the Delaware County district increasingly see as the future of schooling. It is a learning style found more in colleges than in high schools, which are bound to student schedules and often traditional teaching methods.

Garnet Valley, which serves the rapidly growing Concordville area, is pushing ahead with an ambitious five-year goal to become what educators believe would be the nation's first public high school to offer all its courses online, in a classroom, and in a blended or hybrid mode.

It started with a pilot program in social studies last year, and now 11 "blended" online and classroom courses will be offered when students return in the fall.

The 4,800-student district, which has high-performing schools, wants to empower students and teachers to decide how and where learning takes place, much like the work culture at high-tech offices in Silicon Valley.

"We believe ultimately that for schools in the future, all courses at high-school level should be offered as traditional face-to-face, online, or a combination of the two — blended learning," said Samuel Mormando, director of technology, innovation, and online learning for Garnet Valley. "We believe that's where education is going."

"Our goal over the next five years or so is to offer every single course at Garnet Valley High School in all three formats and let the student choose what format best suits their learning style," said Mormando. It also will provide more flexibility for students with busy schedules.

The district will expand online learning by allowing students from other districts to pay tuition and take its eSchool courses. Tuition, paid for by the sending district, will be $10,737 for a regular education high school student and about $19,000 for a special education student, said Superintendent Marc Bertrando. Rather than buying course material, Garnet Valley teachers eventually will create their own online curriculums, which will be identical to those used in the classrooms.

The district uses a learning management system called Schoology that allows teachers to post assignments, set up discussion groups among students, and work with Google Docs. Teachers can also schedule face-to-face time with students in Google Hangouts.

"Instead of students going to traditional cyber-charter schools where the level of instruction and rigor is not comparable to Garnet Valley," said Mormando, "they can send students to us."

Mormando said that any given moment Garnet Valley kids could be working with teachers in small groups while others are doing lab projects; or studying with peers, or doing course work on their laptops in a library, cafeteria, or special learning area.

Supporters of blended learning believe it helps kids perform better, and evidence is beginning to back that up. A 2010 review of the research by the U.S. Department of Education found that blended learning can be more effective than sitting with a teacher in front of a blackboard.

"Blended learning is saying, 'Let's use technology when appropriate to augment the physical environment, and let's use the physical space to augment the technology,' "  said Richard Culatta, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education.

Culatta cautioned that schools should have good reasons for offering nontraditional formats, such as an online course in advanced Mandarin. He said he wasn't sure why a school would offer the same course in three formats.

"Some courses work very well in a virtual space and some work very well in a physical space," he said.

But Jenn Lavender, a 20-year teacher at Garnet Valley who taught the pilot blended program in 11th-grade U.S. History during the last school year, said she "loved seeing the students take ownership in their learning." Her kids apparently agreed, with more than 90 percent reporting in a survey they would take blended classes again.

"One particular thing that I noticed is that some of the quieter students — on the shy side, won't speak out in class — it really gave them a voice," Lavender said. "In some of the discussion boards … the students would really speak out, they had such amazing thoughts and comments … [but] in traditional class you could see they were still shy and quiet."

Kate Nolt, a Creighton University internet instructor who helped design some of the hybrid classes at Garnet Valley, said her 16-year-old son, Donald, was taking blended and online courses at the school and plans to start 11th grade taking most of his course work online but likely will move back to the classroom for some courses.

Studying online, Nolt said, allowed Donald to cope with some anxiety issues. "[School] was frenetic," she said. "The noise, it was affecting him." Working from home for a while, "he found his confidence built as his grades came up."

Garnet Valley's Mormando said the high level of positive feedback from students who have taken the blended courses encouraged the school to boost this fall's offerings to include subjects such as English, math, world languages, health, and psychology. The district has partnered with the Global Online Academy, or GOA, to train teachers in online learning; about 20 were in the initial cohort, and two more cohorts will train this year.

Adam Lavalle, a coach for GOA who also teaches at Episcopal Academy in Newtown Square, said that the outfit currently partners with 77 institutions but that all of them are private schools, like Episcopal. "Garnet Valley is really pushing this forward," he said.

Christine Gumpert, a 15-year teacher at Garnet Valley, said she's looking forward to teaching her first blended course — non-Western cultures, for freshmen — after teaching eSchool and increasing her use of the internet as a learning tool in the last couple of years. She said it's empowering students to take more control of their learning.

"That's been my biggest shift, trusting them and trusting myself to step back a little bit," Gumpert said. With blended learning, "it doesn't have to be one particular topic they have to research. [The teacher can say,] 'Here's the whole area, here are a bunch of topics, what speaks to you? What are you interested in?' "