Wired Olympus students race toward diploma at their own pace

Danielle Boone’s U.S. History class at Olympus Academy High School had just begun, but she didn’t need a teacher to tell her what to do. The glowing screen looking back at her told her everything she needed to know.

Boone typed out the final section of an assignment on immigration – “a FIVE-sentence summary paragraph (including analysis sentence) about immigration and urbanization” – which she emailed to her teacher, sitting nearby, for grading. She then watched a short video online about the Civil War to research her next assignment, an essay on the Transcontinental Railroad.

Boone will continue knocking off these assignments on her school-issued Mac computer at her own blistering pace until, finally, she’s completed what is required to pass the course and earn a credit. The day after she completes the last assignment for the U.S. History class, she’ll start working on another course she needs to pass to graduate.

“I’m a student who works fast and this school helps me get credits,” Boone said during a brief break in her work. “The faster you go, the faster you get credits.”

Boone is the kind of self-starter that city officials envisioned when they tasked Olympus Academy, a transfer school, with creating an online learning model in its school for its over-aged population two years ago.

Olympus is part of the iLearnNYC initiative, a division of the city’s Innovation Zone. Until now, the initiative, which included 124 schools this year, mainly provided technological resources to schools that were devising ways to mix traditional classroom instruction with online curriculum, an approach known as blended learning.

Next year, iLearnNYC will expand to nearly 200 schools and be reorganized around eight clusters that the DOE hopes will provide more support and help develop ideas for best practices. Olympus will lead one of the clusters, which will include 13 other transfer schools, in what DOE officials hope can chart a new way of educating the city’s over-aged student populations.

“We have seen over-aged and under-credited students make significant academic progress when they have access to a personalized online curriculum and out-of-classroom instruction,” said David Weiner, the Deputy Chancellor for Talent, Labor and Innovation.

When he founded the school in 2008, Principal Seth Schoenfeld designed a 17-credit trimester schedule to fast-track his students toward graduation. But after two years of using the schedule, he noticed that students were falling short in a key college-readiness measurement.

“We noticed was that there was some disconnect between the ability to pass a class and then an ability to pass a Regents,” Schoenfeld said, referring to the state exams students must pass to earn a diploma.

He searched for alternatives that would emphasize mastery instead of simply requiring students to outlast the duration of a course and learned that the DOE was actively seeking the same thing. Officials had successfully lobbied the state education department to lift minimum seat time requirements for blended learning classes, allowing them expand the iZone.

As Schoenfeld considered switching to the blended learning model, teachers at Olympus worried their jobs would soon be obsolete.

“All of a sudden, everything is online and you’re never going to be able to talk to your students,” Adrian Scott recalled thinking.

Nearly two years into the experiment, Schoenfeld and his staff are ready to declare the experiment a success. New York State Regent passing rates spiked in nearly every subject, and are up particularly in Living Environment and U.S. History. Credit accumulation among his most dedicated students is also up – 15 of 58 students who graduated last year would not have done so under the school’s old trimester model.

Students at Olympus, located in Canarsie, spend most of their day buried in their personal laptops, seated around large tables on the room. Many listen to music on headphones while they work, a practice Schoenfeld said teachers accept as long as students don’t also surf the web.

Students earn credits and diplomas on a rolling basis, based on how quickly and proficiently they complete the work. Curriculum consists of assignments worth anywhere from one to more than ten points. All classes are made up of 100 points.

And students don’t have to wait for the end of a marking period or the end of the school year to earn a class credit or diploma, respectively. As soon as students have completed all the necessary assignments – and demonstrated the school’s standard of mastery – they can theoretically be enrolled in a new class the next morning.

Boone entered the school with 15 credits, but she has already doubled her credits this year. Another student, Stephanie Paulino, has moved at a slower clip but both said that the school’s online credit-tracking program kept them more focused on completing school work than at their previous schools.

“We would have to wait for the whole class,” Paulino, 17, said of her former high school. Paulino said that so far she’d earned eight credits during this school year after earning 16 over the previous three years.

Not all students have excelled and overall credit accumulation rates has actually fallen because many students have struggled to adapt to the new online curriculum.

“Not every student found it as easy,” Schoenfeld said. “But those students who were willing to push and engage in the new learning experience were able to be successful and we feel they’re better prepared to be successful for college and post-secondary work.”

Olympus teachers created their own online curriculum, but accepted a diminished role in the classroom. Even Scott, who said he was the most vocal skeptic of blended learning, has come around. He said he missed his role as the central figure in his classroom, but said the new role meant more time for individualize attention to students who may not have been as engaged in a larger classroom setting.

Andrew Rabinovici, a Global History teacher at Olympus, said that he still had some flexibility over his classroom. As Rabinovici roamed the classroom to offer help on essays about world religions, some students scribbled their work on a piece of paper.

“I kind of let the students choose,” Ravinovici said. “Some students like to write and some students learn better when they type.”

Ultimately, students at Olympus have more accountability in completing their work than they ever had before, Schoenfeld said.

“There’s no saved by the bell,” he said. “There’s no ‘at the end of this time period, you’re either passing or failing.'”