Small school, big leap

FRIEDENS – Walking through Shanksville-Stonycreek High School hallways, Principal Sam Romesberg pauses to listen. Nothing. The noise of teachers raising their voices to reach students in back rows is nonexistent here. The hallways are hushed. It’s the sound of students engaged in learning, he said.

What’s happening in high school classrooms at Shanksville-Stonycreek and a minority of others statewide is a mix of new technology and traditional teaching. “Hybrid learning” is the hoped answer to weaknesses in academic performance revealed by recent government school performance profiles.

English and language arts was the Achilles’ heel for Shanksville-Stonycreek students taking the state’s standardized tests.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Romesberg said.

Inside a classroom, English teacher Rachel Pritts guides a group of about six students through a lesson while some students work collaboratively on a PowerPoint presentation using Google Docs. Other students with laptops privately learn using online curriculum. Every 15 minutes they change stations.

“Students never get bored in my class,” Pritts said.

Ninth-grader Trista Stutzman said she enjoys the variety of instruction.

“It feels like I can learn more, having more perspectives. It keeps it interesting,” Stutzman said.

She especially benefits from learning independently through online curriculum, she said.

“Some things are more challenging. It helps me pace myself so I can take my time and do better.”

Of the 42 school districts across a four-county area including Blair, Shanksville-Stonycreek is the only one pioneering this model of education.

It’s a school so small that elementary and high school students share one building. Only five districts in the state had fewer students than Shanksville-Stonycreek’s 375 students last year.

The school’s already small class sizes can make hybrid learning difficult, Romesberg said, because there may not be enough students to divide into three groups. But for many schools where teaching positions have been reduced because of school closures or budgetary constraints, hybrid learning allows classes of 30 students or more to feel smaller.

Teachers would be able to lecture 10 students at a time while the other 20 students would work collaboratively on a project or have individual computer instruction that allows students to learn at their own pace.

Altoona Area, Bellwood-Antis, Central Cambria and other school districts in the four-county public school partnership known as the Intermediate Unit 8 are watching Shanksville-Stonycreek.

“We are excited to have them be leaders for other schools in the Intermediate Unit. Small school, big leaps,” said Brenda Calhoun, Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8 educational technology specialist.

Students exposed to hybrid learning classrooms last year at 15 schools in Lancaster, Harrisburg, Luzerne County and Wilkes-Barre have exceeded test scores of students in the same schools who learned in the traditional setting: seated in rows of desks with a teacher in the spotlight.

Schools struggling with deteriorating test scores and strained budgets benefit from hybrid learning, according to research by the nonpartisan think-tank, the Clayton Christensen Institute.

But unlike many of the recent changes to Pennsylvania public education including state exams, performance measures and teacher evaluations, transforming the way instruction is delivered was not an idea that came from elected officials in Harrisburg.

In Pennsylvania, hybrid learning has been most ardently advocated by one consulting business. Dellicker Strategies has helped implement hybrid learning and track its results at all 15 schools that piloted the instruction method last year.

Dellicker Strategies has poured $133,201 into lobbying efforts since 2012, and almost all of that money has been spent to make legislators and the state Department of Education aware of schools’ hybrid learning results.

“It’s been like pushing a rock uphill,” company CEO Kevin Dellicker said of publicizing the impact of hybrid learning.

“We had the results. All we had to do was tell people about it. We’ve been trying to make people aware of what this can do. We tracked test results; that’s why the state got interested.

That’s what attracted them.”

Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget for the 2014-15 year includes $10 million in competitive grants for schools that implement hybrid learning.

“The administration saw several successful models of hybrid learning and believes that it provides educators the ability to customize learning for students and ultimately increase achievement. This is why the governor proposed this new program in the 2014-15 budget,” Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller stated in an email.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education has taken note of the 15 schools that piloted hybrid learning in several classrooms.

A department press release regarding schools with Dellicker as its consultant stated: “Results show that the pilot schools met or exceeded program goals in academic performance, student engagement, parent confidence and teacher satisfaction. Among pilot schools, 88 percent achieved higher academic performance in hybrid classes compared to traditional classes in the same district or statewide benchmarks, 75 percent reported better academic achievement, and all of them met or exceeded academic growth.”

The 15 schools piloting hybrid learning with Dellicker as their consultant doubled since the 2012-13 school year.

“Because we are a business, we have a self-interest, and that’s obvious,” Dellicker said. But the results are clear.

“Schools are doing this because they think it’s important,” he said. “The problem has been schools are competing for the necessary resources.”

Dellicker said schools don’t need him or any consultant to implement hybrid learning, though Shanksville-Stonycreek officials said they are satisfied with their decision. After grants are taken into account, the district is responsible for paying $5,000 to Dellicker Strategies.

Shanksville-Stonycreek teachers initially resisted the change to hybrid learning but became more accepting of it after visiting Lebanon High School. All students at Lebanon High School use the hybrid instructional model in core subject areas.

“This is what the classroom will look like [in the future]. It needs to,” said Lebanon High School Principal Bill Giovino.

But the rotation model of hybrid learning may not be the longterm future of high school classrooms. Like other hybrids in industries including automobile, banking, retail and photography, hybrid learning mixes new technology with the traditional.

And like other hybrid models, it will fade out as more radical forms of cyber learning become effective enough to completely replace the traditional classroom, according to the Clayton Christensen Institute.

For years, districts have been developing in-house cyber academies that offer students online courses. To date, those programs serve a minority of students – those at risk of dropping out or those who want more classes than the traditional classroom provides.

Fully online education is anticipated to improve to the point that it’s good enough for mainstream students, and it will replace the classroom model in the long term, the institute states.

“We suspect schools will no longer become the primary source for content and instruction and instead focus their capabilities on other core services – social services, security, health and meals,” the study states.

In that world where students learn online, teachers’ roles will be face-to-face mentoring.

But the long term might be “quite long,” the institute states. Hybrid learning may sustain the traditional classroom for a long time to come.

Shanksville-Stonycreek is committed to a hybrid learning environment for the forseeable future, said Superintendent Tom McInroy.

However, when the change to hybrid learning began in October, veteran teachers especially had difficulty adjusting, Romesberg said.

“There were times I thought they gave up until they would come to me saying they found a way to have a lesson plan formatted to hybrid learning.”

Pritts is teaching two hybrid learning periods. Those class periods are running smoothly she said, but she’s overcome many obstacles.

“It was a logistic nightmare for me. If you don’t control it, it can get chaotic. But it’s running like clockwork now.”

While the Shanksville-Stonycreek administrators, teachers and school board members are excited to be ground breakers for districts statewide, the district’s move to hybrid learning is all about pursuing the simplest way to help students.

“We aren’t flashy here,” Romesberg said. “The hybrid learning initiative falls into old common sense, proven techniques in the classroom.”

The district is still eyeing its data and data from other districts with hybrid learning, Calhoun said. But the signs are positive to this point.

“There is faith in the evidence they do have,” Calhoun said.

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.