Blended Learning | Feature

Locust Grove Middle School Blends with Lab Rotation Model

Locust Grove Middle School in Henry County, GA implemented a lab rotation model of blended learning for half of its school population last year with impressive results, and this year the entire school has made the switch.

The seeds of the school's blended learning initiative were planted when it first opened. The school day began with a 45 minute "instructional focus period," during which time students could receive academic intervention based on weekly assessments. Meanwhile, students who didn't need remediation could participate in various enrichment activities, such as advanced band, advanced chorus, art class, drama productions, Spanish for native speakers, or pre-AP courses. And once students receiving intervention had mastered the particular curriculum standard with which they were struggling, they could return to their enrichment activities.

"If it took them two days, or two weeks, it didn't matter, the teachers just continued to work with those students to make sure that they filled those gaps in their learning," said Anthony Townsend, principal of Locust Grove Middle School. "It gave us a lot of flexibility in terms of what we offer our students."

Townsend and his team saw that the instructional focus period was the most valuable part of the day, but it was limited to 45 minutes and math ended up receiving most of the focus, while the remainder of the day followed a traditional schedule. "We knew we needed to offer that opportunity for students in all content areas," he said. They started thinking about ways they could revamp the schedule and incorporate technology to offer students that same level of personalization and flexibility throughout the school day.

Henry County's Vision of Personalized Learning
The entire district of Henry County Schools has a vision of becoming a personalized learning county by the year 2020. To achieve that goal, the district has identified five central tenets of personalized learning:

  • Development of learner profiles and personalized learning plans;
  • Competency-based learning and flexible pacing;
  • Authentic project-based learning;
  • Teaching 21st Century skills of communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking; and
  • Technology-enabled learning.

"Locust Grove was just the first school to really step out and say this is what it could look like and what it could mean for kids," said Townsend. The team looked at the various blended learning models and ended up selecting a lab rotation model. In this model, students would spend part of their day in a computer lab working through online curriculum at their own pace, and they would spend part of the day in a classroom working with a teacher to support what they had learned in the lab.

Lab Rotation Model
To support this model, the school needed an online curriculum. The district sent out an RFP, and Townsend and several other principals and district leaders participated in the decision making process. They looked for a solution that would allow students to progress at their own pace, that teachers could customize as needed, and that had an easy-to-use, consistent interface. They ended up selecting Edgenuity, and Locust Grove Middle School is using the company's middle grade math, science, language arts and social studies online learning products.

Last year, Locust Grove Middle School implemented the new blended learning model with half of its school population because it didn't have enough technology to support a full implementation at that time. Over the summer the school was able to purchase more technology, and this year the entire school is using blended learning.

The lab rotation model splits the school day into three two-hour blocks. One block is for "connections" classes, such as physical education, art, band, chorus or Spanish. Another block is for lab time. And the final block is seminar time when students work face-to-face with a teacher in groups of 15 to 20 students to reinforce what they learned in the lab. Students follow different block rotations, which reduces the student-teacher ratio during seminar time.

The school has three computer labs, each of which can hold 75 students. When the students are in the lab, they work through the Edgenuity online curriculum for math, language arts, science and social studies as it has been customized by their teachers. "A student within that time frame can work flexibly at their own pace, so they can move through the content more quickly, or if it takes them more time, that's okay too," said Townsend.

During seminar time, teachers work with groups of students and provide remediation or enrichment activities as needed. "Our classrooms look a lot different than a traditional environment," said Townsend. "They are much more group-based and station-based. With a group of 20 students in a classroom, a teacher may have four different groups of five students, and those four groups would all be working on something different based on where they're at and what knowledge and mastery they've shown through Edgenuity and through assessments that we give in the classroom."

Blend or Foe?
The school experienced some challenges in its first year of blended learning. One challenge was that the teachers had to change their teaching methods significantly. "Some of them said it was like being a first year teacher all over again," said Townsend. Instead of planning a single lesson for a group of 32 kids, they had to plan for 20 kids to come into their classroom at potentially 20 different places in their learning.

The teachers at Locust Grove Middle School also noticed that the students struggled a bit with the rigor of the Edgenuity program. "The questioning, the thinking and the discussions they encountered were at a higher level," said Townsend. "But it was great to see the growth that our students had from the beginning of the year to the end with taking more ownership over their work and their grade because they did have a say-so as to what their grade was. If they didn't like it, they could change it: They could go back and redo and relearn, which has never really been available to them in a traditional setting."

In retrospect, Townsend said he should have made a greater effort to explain the new approach to parents and the community before launching the initiative. Between August and October, Townsend and the assistant principal had 65 separate one-on-one meetings with parents who were upset with the new, non-traditional approach. Then, in October of last year, the school instituted a weekly information session, with a student panel and a teacher panel, so parents and other educators could come in and ask questions, and then Townsend would give them a tour of the school buildings. After learning about the program and seeing the labs and classrooms, the vast majority of parents fully supported it. "It really changed how they felt about what we were doing," said Townsend.

Best Blend
The results of the new learning model have been positive. The school kept two types of data on the blended and traditional students since the program began: discipline data and assessment data. "We saw a dramatic change in our overall discipline data from last year with our blended kids," said Townsend. "The referrals dropped dramatically, and we attribute that to the fact that  the kids are engaged in the content, and they don't have the same embarrassment factor that they used to in terms of asking questions because they can do that online through Edgenuity, and when they're in the classroom, they're placed in a group where they are comfortable."

Students at Locust Grove Middle School complete Common Formative Assessments (CFA) throughout the year and Georgia's Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT) in the spring. "The CFAs and the CRCT both showed that the blended learning kids were achieving at a higher rate than they had in the past," said Townsend. "We saw our 'exceeds' levels go up last year. And with our blended kids that had to take a modified CRCT because of IEP [individualized education program] concerns, we saw a dramatic increase in them moving from the 'does not meet' category into the 'meets' category for the CRCT. It was very exciting."

With its blended learning initiative, Locust Grove Middle School has already implemented two of Henry County's five tenets of personalized learning: competency-based learning with flexible pacing and technology-enabled learning. Next up will be project-based learning, and Townsend and his team are beginning to conduct research and professional development to incorporate project-based learning into the blended learning environment.