Ditching the Weekly Bell Schedule to Create Flexibility for At-Risk...

Personalized Learning

Ditching the Weekly Bell Schedule to Create Flexibility for At-Risk Students

By Elizabeth S. LeBlanc     Mar 20, 2018

Ditching the Weekly Bell Schedule to Create Flexibility for At-Risk Students

As I walk through campus on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, Mateo, a 7th grader at Taos Academy Charter School, is in the middle of his culinary arts class. He stops making egg rolls for just a moment to tell me how much he likes his STEM-Arts classes. “They help me learn by using my hands,” he says. “That’s one of the ways I learn best.”

Taos Academy Charter School, which serves 225 students in grades 5-12, uses a blended learning model to improve student outcomes across diverse measures such as student achievement, career and college readiness, and graduation rate. In a state that consistently ranks near the bottom of most education inventories, our school’s high achievement results over time have drawn notice.

Located in rural northern New Mexico, Taos Academy serves a high-poverty area; our student body is 68 percent economically disadvantaged and is primarily made up of underserved populations. The county’s rate of teen suicide, alcohol-related deaths and children affected by poverty are also all higher than the state averages.

Flexible weekly scheduling is one of the ways that our small charter school is meeting the needs of our high population of at-risk learners. Through tailoring schedules to meet the needs of our students and their families, we’ve been able to support engagement and encourage ownership of learning.

Different Students, Different Schedules

Our school's founder and director, Traci Filiss, and her co-founder Karin Moulton, designed the school to allow students and families the freedom to choose the schedule that works best for their needs. Our “default setting” schedule has students join us on campus two days a week; middle school students attend on Mondays and Wednesdays and high schoolers attend on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Taos Academy offers flexible programming options, meaning students spend anywhere from two to five days a week on campus depending on their individual situation and family needs.

June’s Schedule

June is a middle schooler attending Taos Academy; she is also a competitive ski racer. During the winter, she trains with her team and travels extensively. For June, the two-day schedule works best, as long as she maintains her expected weekly progress and keeps her grades high. June is one of over 60 middle school students at Taos Academy who take advantage of the school’s close partnership with community experts who work with our teachers to design and deliver an array of classes ranging from “Robo-Band” and “Audio Engineering” to “Cyber Arts” and “Kinetic Sculpture.”

The face-to-face classes provide June with opportunities to apply what she has learned through digital content to collaborative, project-based learning experiences. Her time on campus also ensures that she stays connected to our learning community and maintains close relationships with her peers and advisers.

June's Schedule, Image Credit: Elizabeth S. LeBlanc

Mateo’s Schedule

Mateo is one of our struggling students, and needs more structured time and support so his schedule includes five days on campus. He has been retained once before and is still reading below his grade-level peers. In fact, most of our students enter 5th and 6th grade with below-average reading and math skills.

Mateo lives with his mother and his younger brother who also attends our school and his family does not have reliable internet. Our digital core curriculum is meant to support him in accessing his lessons around the clock. Unfortunately, like many of our students on the wrong side of the digital divide, this anytime, anywhere access does not translate into instant academic success for Mateo. The open lab time on Mateo’s schedule allows him the time he needs to keep up with his work.

Mateo's Schedule, Image Credit: Elizabeth S. LeBlanc

Brianna’s Schedule

Once our students move into high school, their opportunities expand even further. Our school partners with University of New Mexico-Taos to offer dual credit elective courses as early as 9th grade. When students enter 11th and 12th grade, those who qualify have the option to replace some of their digital core courses with live-taught college courses at the UNM-Taos campus.

All students taking college-level courses are required to sign up for three advisory sessions each week to receive help with their coursework and get structured support for applying to jobs and colleges as they prepare for life after high school. Many of our high schoolers also participate in work-study programs, internships and volunteer projects in the greater Taos community that further their college and career goals.

One of our students Brianna wants to pursue a career in nursing. Her digital coursework allows her to take electives and college-level courses simultaneously. This semester she is taking two college-level courses: Biology for Health Majors and Intermediate Composition. She attends her three advisory sessions and also has an internship at the local hospital.

Brianna's Schedule, Image Credit: Elizabeth S. LeBlanc

The Spiderman Model

The choice seems to be working. At any given moment, over 50 percent of our students are on campus taking STEM classes, receiving academic support or participating in enrichment. Ditching the one-size-fits-all weekly schedule has increased accountability and student ownership. Because students are expected to maintain steady progress and high grade thresholds throughout the semester, the in-person classes also serves the school as an early warning system. We call it the “Spiderman model”—with great power comes great responsibility.

Take Kanen for example, a student who started the semester on track, but began falling behind after the first few weeks of school. Every Monday morning, a schoolwide report pulled from our digital curriculum helps teachers flag students whose grades drop below 70 percent. When this happened to Kanen, we had a meeting with his family and determined that he needed more time in his coursework as a start. We recommend that students spend 20 hours each week in their digital curriculum. He was spending 8-10 hours a week online.

In cases like this, we create a 30-day contract called the “Student Success Contract” to help get students get back on track. During the 30-day period, the student is on campus five days a week. In addition to academics, we support them in goal-setting, building strong work habits and developing time management skills. At the end of the contract time, the student is often back on target and has learned some of the skills needed to stay there.

Our flexible learning model has evolved over time. Taos Academy was founded nine years ago, at a time when blended learning was still relatively new and certainly had not made its way to rural New Mexico. We opened the doors with five teachers and 70 students in grades 5-11 and I will always be so grateful to the families who took a chance on a new, unproven school and a different model of learning. One of the issues educators face when talking about personalized learning is that it looks different for everyone, and that's hard to scale. For us, flexible scheduling has been key to serving our students, families and community.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up