Colorado Springs District Creates Digital School in Local Mall for 'Disenfranchised' Students

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The mall is no longer just a place for shopping for some Colorado high school students. Instead, it is a place where they can go to earn their high school diplomas - using technology in the core content areas.

This is because the urban/suburban Colorado Springs School District 11 has created the Digital School as an innovative way to help students recover credits and graduate. The school, which is a collaborative effort between the district, Adelphia Communications and the Citadel Mall in Colorado Springs, establishes a culture and provides an opportunity for students who have been previously unsuccessful in a traditional high school setting. It also assists students who have irregular schedules due to family, work or other circumstances.

The district was able to combine state and district funding, grant funding and donations from the community to create the Digital School, which opened in fall 2003. Now, the Digital School provides its roughly 140 students with an opportunity to reconnect with the school environment and engage in self-directed learning.

We decided to establish a storefront at a local mall because it provides a nonthreatening, neutral environment for disenfranchised students. These students include those who have had negative experiences in traditional school settings, as well as older students who feel uncomfortable attending a school where everyone is younger than them. The mall also provides a convenient location for students who take public transportation.

Online Curriculum

A key part of our vision for the Digital School was to diversify the method of delivering state-accredited curriculum. Toward that end, the Digital School implemented Pearson Digital Learning’s NovaNET system (www.pearsondigital.com/novanet) to provide students with personalized computer-based instruction in mathematics, language arts, social studies and science. NovaNET is a comprehensive online courseware system that delivers standards-based, interactive curriculum with integrated assessment, student management and record-keeping functions. We selected the NovaNET system to deliver instruction in the core content areas because we found its courses were more rigorous and its interface was more user-friendly than the other programs we evaluated.

The NovaNET system runs on desktop computers with 3 GB of hard drive space, 300 MB of RAM and Pentium III processors. For Internet access, we use two modems that were donated by Adelphia, a router and switch from Cisco Systems, and a Dell 1750 server. We currently have 40 computers running, with plans to add another 40 this year.

School Staff and Referrals

The Digital School is staffed by two licensed district teachers who assist students as they progress through their courses. There is also a part-time counselor who works with all of the students currently attending, as well as those who are considering attending the school.

Students are referred to the Digital School in a variety of ways. We review students’ records, identify those who have dropped out but are within a few credits of graduating, and then personally contact those students. Teachers and counselors at our high schools also refer students. In addition, local media provided generous coverage of the Digital School’s launch, which actually encouraged many students to refer themselves.

Personal Tutors

At the outset, a prospective student for the Digital School works with our part-time counselor to determine if the school is the best place to meet his or her needs. If it’s determined that the school is the best place, they then work together to decide which courses the student should take. We allow each student to sign up for only one course at a time, and they must finish the course before moving on to another.

The Digital School, coupled with the flexibility of the NovaNET system, also allows students to re-enter school at any time of the year. Its online curriculum enables students to create individualized lesson plans and test into courses to assure their success. We find that this technology-based environment, which we have created and use in the core content areas, helps students stay focused on their work, as there are no school bells, lunch periods or other distractions. On a normal day, a student will walk in, pick up his or her notebook, say hello to the teacher, sit down at a computer and begin working. We also limit students to a maximum of four hours a day, which we think helps improve their concentration.

In addition, the NovaNET system acts like a personal tutor for each student. This means that it provides continual positive feedback and constructive encouragement as students progress at their own pace. Students appreciate that they can ask questions or repeat difficult problems and concepts without holding the entire class back. The system also helps students gain a real sense of accomplishment as they progress through each course.

Flexible Scheduling

NovaNET gives students greater flexibility in their schedules by allowing them to select the days and times they would like to attend each week. Students can then sign up for a four-hour block of computer time and use as much or as little of that time as they need. The students especially like the fact that they “get to be an adult” by picking their own hours and setting their own goals. We also ask students to sign up for another session before they leave, and we encourage them to attend at least twice a week, because we find students experience more success that way. In addition, we try to schedule students with the same teacher each time, which helps strengthen the student-teacher relationship and, in turn, increases retention.

The Student-Teacher Relationship

The student-teacher relationship is essential for a student to succeed. When teachers are hired to work at the Digital School, it is not critical that they have good computer skills. Instead, it is more important that they have strong skills in building relationships with the students. In an environment where we are working with dropouts and students who have not succeeded in traditional school settings, it is critical to have a teacher who is willing to continually make contact with the students and keep them coming back.

Digital School Results

In fall 2003, the Digital School’s first semester of operation, seven students graduated; 48 credits were recovered; and seven students earned “releveled” status, meaning they had earned enough credits to be on the appropriate grade level. During the spring 2004 semester, we saw 30 students graduate, 172 credits recovered and 38 students releveled. Summer school saw 39 students graduate, 101 credits recovered and nine students releveled. In addition, during the 2003-2004 school year, we had a total of 76 students earn one or more credits toward their diploma and graduate. In other words, the Digital School had a 3.8% impact on the graduation rate of Colorado Springs School District 11, and we plan to double that number for the 2004-2005 school year. At the time of writing this article last semester, six students have graduated, 101 credits have been recovered and three students have releveled.

Since our launch, we have also realized an unexpected benefit. After completing only one course in the NovaNET system, several students learned that they could, indeed, be successful in school and have decided to return to their traditional high schools. We consider this an important measure of success.

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.

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