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Videoconferencing | FETC 2011 Coverage

Reconnecting Students in Alternative Education

In an effort to reduce truancies and tardiness among alternative education students, Kingsville ISD in Texas has started using videoconferencing to reconnect those students to their original classrooms. The results from the initial pilot have included improved attendance and, for the district, $200,000 in annual savings.

When Jennifer Kent, chief academic officer for Kingsville Independent School District in Kingsville, TX, joined the district 18 months ago, she was faced with some daunting challenges.

In a district of approximately 4,000 students, 82 percent were receiving free or reduced lunch; less than 75 percent of students were completing high school in five years; enrollment was on the decline; achievement in special education classes was below state standards; and the district's middle schools were struggling to maintain an "acceptable" rating by the Texas Education Agency (TEA).

Speaking to several dozen teachers and administrators at the FETC 2011 conference in Orlando, FL Wednesday, Kent acknowledged "something had to be done." And it had to start with the way the district handled its Disciplinary Alternative Education Program (DAEP).

When Kent arrived in Kingsville, the DAEP was largely discretionary, with students being removed from their home schools and placed at an alternative campus, "essentially disconnected from their core teachers and familiar surroundings." The effect of this, according to Kent, was the development of a "prison mentality" that resulted in increased no-shows and tardies, discontinuity between alternative and core curriculums, and noticeable difficulty transitioning back to original schools.

"We knew a change had to be made," admitted Kent, introducing Juan Diego Vasquez-Cruz, director of instructional technology for the district, "and it started with closing the DAEP campus" and creating a plan to reconnect the students to their school, their teachers, and the core curriculum.

According to Vasquez-Cruz, the decision was made to bring all DAEP students back to their home schools, while continuing to keep them in a separate environment to meet the state's requirements. "We brought cameras into the classroom," he said, creating a connection between the DAEP class and their home classrooms, giving students the opportunity to learn with their peers.

The original pilot used six cameras and microphones, placed with the schools best teachers who were willing to play an active role in testing the new direction. Using the Axis P3343-V camera, two-way audio, and a browser-based viewing system, students log on to view lectures in real time from their original classroom teachers.

The total cost for phase 1 of the initiative was about $10,000. According to Kent, the ongoing savings from closing the original DAEP campus is more $200,000 annually; "a significant number, by most standards."

"We focused on ELA, math, science, and history," said Vasquez-Cruz, while at the same time increasing access to support services, teaching self-discipline and social skills, and providing additional opportunities for mentoring and tutoring. "During later phases," he continued, "we hope to integrate additional subjects, such as art and digital media."

According to Kent and Vasquez-Cruz, the first group of students to participate in the project are back in their original classrooms and have showed improved attendance and have expressed a greater sense of belonging. "Since closing the DAEP campus," Kent added, "placements in the program have been cut in half."

"The program has been so well received," added Vasquez-Cruz, "that we are exploring additional ways to increase the connections between the alternative classrooms and the core teachers," with things like screen casting and screen sharing.

"This has worked well enough," said Kent, "that we will continue to find ways to creatively fund the continuation and expansion of this program."

About the Author

Chris Riedel is a freelance writer based in Illinois. He can be reached here.

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