Platte County High School pilot program set to challenge traditional classroom model

ROSS MARTIN/Citizen photo Platte County history teacher Kiel Giese, left, goes over a study guide with a class on the morning of Tuesday, Jan. 26 at Platte County High School. Giese is one of eight teachers set to participate in a pilot program this fall that will offer students a new flexible scheduling model. Platte County High School administrators plan to challenge the inherent structure of the school day, starting with a pilot program aimed at providing a more personalized learning experience.

In a presentation to the board of education during its regular meeting Thursday, Jan. 21, Dr. Chad Sayre, principal at the high school, helped lay out the progressive idea set to start this fall. Platte County hopes to enroll 170 students into a “flexible personalized learning” plan that seeks to utilize time relative to strengths and weakness of each individual student.

Although this will only affect three periods of the traditional seven-period day, the administration wants to take a serious look at the format with the possibility of transitioning all classes to this type of flex scheduling if the system proves beneficial.

“We have an opportunity to do things differently,” Sayre said. “We’re working on some systems that have been around for a long time. I gave an example to the kids today that my daughter has a seven-period day. I had a seven-period day. My mother had a seven-period day. My grandmother had a seven-period day. I didn’t talk to my great grandparents, but I’m assuming they probably had a seven-period day.

“So we’re really running on some old systems that served its purpose and time, but that’s changed. We also believe in our vision, mission values, that students learn in different ways in different timeframes.”

The basis of the pilot program seeks to help students better prepare for college and/or careers.

Other school districts use similar programs, but Platte County’s prototype will include breaking down the classroom time into 20-minute modules. These “mods” can be utilized in different ways between large-group sessions, small-group sessions and what they are calling “personalized learning time” or PLT.

For instance, there could be a 60-minute lecture hall style session with an estimated 70 students, followed by 20 minutes of PLT. And then a 20-minute small classroom session used for activities. The time can be blocked out for each student in any combination of 20 minutes.

Students will continue to receive the state-mandated classroom time and assessment but will approach the format from a different viewpoint.

Students would be able to use PLT to catch up on homework or seek extra help in an area of struggle. According to Sayre, this time could also be used for extracurricular activities or more personalized individual education pursuits, including meetings with available teachers.

“Life is not clean and neat. It requires a lot of overlap,” Sayre said. “This schedule allows the opportunity (for students) to really control that environment for them.”

However, teachers or administrators could step in and make mandates for that PLT if a student is found to be struggling to keep up with any aspect of his or her education. Students that maintain their responsibilities will be given more freedom and control over how they learn in an atmosphere more like college.

This could also allow for mandatory life skills training that goes beyond the typical classroom setting.

“We want them to be able to adapt to change,” said Aaron Duff, instructional advisor at the high school. “And part of that adaptability includes recognizing failure and not stopping at failure but moving through failure to that continuous improvement.

“We’d like to graduate students that can recognize their own failure and self-reflect and self-improve. We want to share some of the power with our students to help get them where they need to be.”

Sayre and assistant principal Shari Waters began researching the idea of flexible scheduling back in 2012, but the pursuit really picked up during the past two years.

This past fall, teachers were given the opportunity to seek a spot in the pilot, and eight were selected in November, including Kiel Giese (social studies), Bevin Schmer (social studies), Mary Martin (English), Heidi Mick (English), Christy Sandell (science), Dana Smith (special services), Shelby Forman (math) and Paige McCane (math). Shortly after, those teachers began professional work to prepare for the pilot while the details were finalized.

Presentations have been made to the students, and those interested can now apply.

The pilot is aimed at sophomores and juniors who have selected classes in three out of four core educational areas – social studies, English, math and science. The program will be housed exclusively inside Paxton School, which will be annexed into the high school starting next school year.

The pilot will operate between second and fourth hours five days a week plus seminar on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Regular classes will be held in the Paxton annex during the other hours.

The desired 170 students will ideally represent the demographics at the school and will not exclude anyone. However, if more than 170 apply, the plan is to use a random name generator to select the appropriate cross section of participants.

“We’ve had a pretty good response, qualitatively and quantitatively,” Sayre said. “That’s important because we didn’t want the best students to be a part of it; we didn’t want one type of student. We wanted to make sure we have all types of students that represent our demographics so we can test the system and test the model.”

Other schools have been doing this for a long time but not necessarily in this format.

Administrators and teachers on an established vision team made trips to other schools to observe the inner workings. That included Westside High School in Omaha, Neb. starting with a flex program back in 1968 that’s still used today.

However, Platte County’s decision to combine the flexible scheduling and PLT might be a first for a school in the country.

The hope is to promote the college and career readiness through initiative and entrepreneurship, critical thinking and problem solving, effective oral and written communication, agility and adaptability, accessing and analyzing information and curiosity and imagination. How the students in the pilot perform will give an indicator on how the administration proceeds, but a plan is in place that would allow the full transition of the high school schedule to flexible scheduling during the next three years.

One of the biggest challenges would be how to make the individual scheduling with no existing software that allows for an automated process.

“I certainly don’t think we want to oversell this,” Sayre said. “We’ve been really careful in saying it’s a pilot. There’s going to be hiccups. There’s going to be challenges that are inherent to this, but we’re certainly covering all the bases. Parents have been open. Our community has been receptive, and we’re continuing to grow that.”