Part One of Our Special Blog Series
Wright City, Missouri, is a classic American small town—so small that there isn’t even a stoplight.
But like most small and large communities in the United States, sports, clubs, and local spirit are all-important parts of the high school experience at Wright City High School (WCHS), the award-winning institution where every student in the district matriculates.
And like high schools across the country, WCHS has found that not all students thrive in the traditional classroom setting.
In response to discipline issues and the growing threat of dropouts, WCHS instituted the Wright City Academy in 2005 as a blended learning program and an alternative to traditional high school. The program took shape with a “Transition Classroom” for freshmen and sophomores, “Academy Classroom” for juniors and seniors, and credit recovery opportunities for any student who wanted to improve a poor or failing grade. Over the years, the Academy broadened to encompass summer school and elective programs, as well.
Wright City Academy found success by implementing the flex model of blended learning. Students learn in the brick-and-mortar school, where they receive one-to-one teacher support and follow personalized instructional paths—mostly through online learning.
The students also have the opportunity to participate in typical school activities like sports and clubs.
They can either graduate from the Academy or, if educators think it is time and the student is ready, they may integrate back into the general student population.
While some community members initially were apprehensive about launching a blended program at the high school, today they see Wright City Academy as a way to keep students who are struggling in the traditional classroom setting from dropping out or flunking out of high school.
Download our Wright City Academy Toolkit for questions to ask yourself and your team if you're considering implementing blended learning in your school or district. Read on to learn more about Wright City Academy.
A Small Town with a Big Sense of Community
Located 50 miles west of St. Louis and nearly 90 miles east of the state capitol in Jefferson City, the close-knit community of Wright City has a population of 3,517, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The Wright City R-11 School District serves approximately 1,675 students, with slightly more than 50 percent on free or reduced-price lunch. The district operates five buildings: Wright City Early Childhood Center (Pre-Kindergarten); Wright City East Elementary (K–1); Wright City West Elementary (2–5); Wright City Middle School (6–8); and Wright City High School (9–12).
Wright City Academy, an alternative blended learning program for grades 9–12, is housed at the high school.
The 450 students at WCHS have been in class together since kindergarten.
“They have a great sense of pride in their class and their school,” says Wright City Academy Transition Room Teacher Becky Brinkmeyer, who has taught at WCHS for 19 years. “There’s a great sense of community.”
Despite its small size, students at WCHS have the opportunity to participate in a wide variety of clubs, including Art, Band, Chorus, National Honor Society, and Robotics Club. “Future Farmers of America is big at our school,” Brinkmeyer says.
Athletics are also big. The school turns out teams in baseball, basketball, cheerleading, cross country, football, golf, softball, track and field, and volleyball—plus Scholar Bowl and speech and debate.
And size doesn’t matter in terms of scholastic excellence, either.
“We have been recognized by U.S. News and World Report for the last three years as a Bronze Medal winner of America's Best High Schools,” notes WCHS Principal Shawn Brown. “We have had an unprecedented run of academic success for about the last seven years at the high school level as our student achievement scores on Missouri's End-of-Course exams and AP® exams have been at the highest in our school’s history.”
Much of the success can be attributed to the teachers. The low student–teacher ratio of 15:1 at the high school level means that teachers are able to build relationships with their students.
“I coach them on the football field, I have them in class and I see them in the hallway. You get to know them at a much more intimate level than you do at a bigger school,” says Wright City Credit Recovery Teacher Devin Raney, who has taught at WCHS for the past three years. “We’re able to interact with the kids and there is a sense of closeness between the students and teachers that I don’t think you find at a lot of other places.”
This close interpersonal connection makes it easier for teachers to recognize when students are struggling and intervene early to help them stay on the path to graduation.
Keeping Kids in School Can Be Challenging
Even in a small school, not all students thrive in a traditional classroom setting. And students who are not succeeding in a regular classroom situation are more likely to cause disruptions, skip classes, or even drop out.
These issues came to a head at Wright City High School in the early 2000s.
“We had, I’ll be honest, more conflict. You had those conflicts because … we couldn’t pull [students] out, because there was nowhere for them to go,” says Brinkmeyer. “They were forced to be in those classes. It wasn’t a good situation for them, it wasn’t a good situation for anyone. And that is why [the Academy] program needed to be created. We owed it to them to see if they could be successful in a different environment.”
To help keep students who were struggling—socially or academically—in school and on the path to graduation, the district created the Wright City Academy in 2005.
The goal was to provide a full-day, online alternative high school for students seeking a different path or who were unsuccessful in the regular high school. At that time, the average freshman graduation rate for public high school students in Missouri was 73.4 percent. This was slightly below the U.S. average freshman graduation rate of 75 percent.
“We all learn differently,” says Brinkmeyer. “Some students needed a different, smaller setting. The larger, 25-person classes weren’t working for them. We wanted to help improve our graduation rate as a school—but we wanted to make sure those kids had a chance to succeed, too.”
Helping Struggling Students Become Independent and Successful Learners
Students transfer into the Transition room when they need extra assistance, and return to a regular high school schedule when they are back on track.
Two Missouri-certified teachers work with students in two classrooms, the Transition Room, and the Academy Room, and personalize the instruction to each student’s prior experiences, current situation, and future goals.
There is also a credit recovery program which serves both Academy students and traditional students at WCHS.
All high school students receive a loaner Chromebook. Academy instructors use digital curriculum to offer original credit courses for core subjects and electives, as well as credit recovery courses, depending on what the students need. More than 30 different courses are offered through the Academy and the Transition program.
“The Academy offers pretty much anything that our high school offers. And electives—lots of electives,” says Raney.
Recently retired Wright City High School educator Carla Woods, a major advocate for blended learning, helped establish and grow Wright City Academy. Her guidance helped determine the right blend for student success.
“Generally, we provide two classes at a time, which we’ve found over the years is the right balance,” Woods told a group of fellow educators at a 2016 blended learning conference sponsored by Fuel Education. “They also need a little bit of variety, but with more than two classes, they tend to just kind of jump around and don’t accomplish anything. And we’ve found that a five-week timeline tends to work best to keep them on track. That varies somewhat by student and by the classes they’re taking.”
Teachers use an interactive dashboard to monitor student progress. They can see details about how the entire class is doing, or how individual students are performing. This information allows them to make data-driven decisions about how to differentiate instruction to support each student.
Teachers also use software to monitor all student screens simultaneously to ensure they’re not abusing their time.
“The nice thing is while they are working on their classroom work [online], the teacher can move around and help the kids individually, one-on-one, on a regular basis,” says School Counselor Konrad “Kurt” Laughman. “They get a lot of one-on-one attention.”
“We’ll work through stuff,” Raney adds. “If there’s a math problem, we’ll go through it together. If they have to write a paper, I’ll sit there with them, get them talking. It’s more traditional in that way. It’s not always about the technology. I’ll build rapport with them. Sometimes, they just want to talk, and then it’s like, ‘OK, let’s work through whatever it is that you are dealing with so I can help you be successful.’”
Academy students, like students in the traditional high school, are required to take the Missouri End-of-Course (EOC) assessments in English I, English II, Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry, American History, Government, Biology, and Physical Science.
The exams, which measure students’ progress toward the Missouri Learning Standard, are available only online, unless a student needs special accommodations.
To graduate, students must complete EOC assessments in Algebra I, English II, Biology, and Government.
The Transition Room housed at Wright City High School. Approximately 14 students, mostly freshmen and sophomores, study here online from 7:17 AM to 2:28 PM, five days per week.
“Our ninth and tenth graders are in the Transition Room to get them into the high school experience, and to help them to earn some credits,” says Brinkmeyer. “Then, eventually, they’ll transition back into the regular school setting.”
The Academy Room is also housed at the high school. Currently, about 14 students, mostly upperclassmen, study here online from 7:17 AM to 2:28 PM five days per week.
Students in the Academy can also work online from home, which helps them learn to be independent learners. The flexibility to work from home is particularly useful to older students who have work or family commitments.
Credit Recovery Room
The credit recovery room is located in the high school and is open three periods per day for both Academy students and WCHS students. Roughly 50 students are taking online credit recovery courses to recover credits or to improve their grades.
“If you have a student who fails the first semester of science, for example, and passes the second, the next year they could come back and re-take that first semester of science in the Academy to improve that grade,” says Raney.
Students also have the opportunity to recover credits during a 24-day summer school program, which has two sessions per day, morning and afternoon, offered at Wright City Middle School. Students can attend either a morning or an afternoon session, or both if they are taking multiple courses.
Blended Learning Models
Wright City Academy’s Transition and Academy rooms are examples of the blended learning flex model.
Blended learning, as defined by the Christensen Institute, is a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace; at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home; and the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.
In the flex model of blended learning:
- The majority of student learning takes place online, either at a school facility or at home.
- Teachers provide face-to-face support as needed in a flexible environment.
- This instruction can range from differentiated instruction and tutoring delivered one-to-one, to a lesson delivered to a whole group of students, to project-based learning.
In both the Transition Room and the Academy Room, students are able to work at their own pace. A Missouri-state-certified teacher provides support to students, either one-to-one or in small groups, as needed. The rooms are set up to provide individual learning spaces as well as meeting spaces for group learning.
Because all students have use of a Chromebook, they can work on their schoolwork in or out of the classroom. In the Transition Room, most of the learning takes place online whether the student is physically in the school building or working from home.
Students in the Academy Room also have the option to complete some of their online work at home.
“Our community is a big commuter community,” says Brinkmeyer. “Both parents are usually working. They may be commuting to St. Louis, getting up at four in the morning and not getting home until eight at night. If a student is struggling in a class, there may not be someone to turn to for help at home. We’re here to help them. They see there’s an adult that cares for them and who will be there for them. With [fully] online classes, the student is at home and maybe only gets a little bit of interaction with their teacher. Here, they get that interaction every day.”
“There are students that would’ve ended up dropping out—they weren’t going to finish,” adds Raney. “Now that they get a different opportunity, a different setting, they are able to push through, get a diploma and be successful.”
The credit recovery program follows the à la carte model of blended learning, which the Christensen Institute defines as:
“A course that a student takes entirely online to accompany other experiences that the student is having at a brick-and-mortar school or learning center. The teacher of record for the à la carte course is the online teacher. Students may take the à la carte course either on the brick-and-mortar campus or oﬀ-site. This differs from full-time online learning because it is not a whole-school experience. Students take some courses à la carte and others face-to-face at a brick-and-mortar campus.”
- Lab rotation — Students rotate on a fixed schedule or at the teacher’s discretion among locations on campus, one of which is an online lab, to focus on a specific course or subject.
- Enriched Virtual — In these full-time virtual programs, students divide their time between attending a blended learning facility at a brick-and-mortar school for a few days a week, and learning remotely using online content.
- Flipped Classroom — Students rotate between face-to-face teacher-guided practice or project-based learning on campus during the standard school day and online delivery of content and instruction of the same subject from a remote location—often at home—after school.
Many people describe blended learning as “the best of both worlds.” With online courses, students have the flexibility to move at their own pace and do their coursework anywhere they are able to connect with the internet.
Students also have one-to-one interaction with their teacher, just as they do in a traditional school. At the Academy, students can still participate in all of the WCHS clubs, sports, and other activities.
“They’re still getting the high school experience. They can interact with their friends in the hallways,” says Laughman. “Being in the school building helps them to grow socially.”
Good Results Turn Blended Learning Skeptics into Believers
When Wright City Academy launched in 2005, many people had never heard of blended learning.
“We had to educate the community on blended learning,” says Brinkmeyer. “When the program first started, the Board of Education wasn’t even sure what it would look like. Since then, we had a board member whose son was in the program, and she was able to bring a lot of firsthand information to the community. The community seemed to embrace it, and now it’s just a normal thing.”
When the state released the Missouri Standard Improvement Program (MSIP) ratings for the 2016–2017 year in November 2017, Wright City R-II School District tied its highest score ever. The district received a 96.4 percent for academic achievement—significantly above the state average of 89.6 percent. What’s more, Wright City was awarded 30 points (the highest possible score) in the areas of college and career readiness and graduation rate.
“I think one of the big things we’ve all learned is that people learn differently,” says Brinkmeyer. “There were some students who weren’t finding success in the traditional classroom who’ve been able to find that success in the Academy. There were some students over the years who you were not sure if they would walk across that stage and graduate, but through the Academy, they did. Those are the moments that make you really proud of them, and this school.”
“You can’t count a student out,” says School Counselor Abby Jackson. “You can never say, this is who they’re going to be. [Because] low and behold, they’re able to become extremely successful when they go through the Academy program. Anything is possible with students when you work to build a positive relationship in a positive environment.”
Click here to download the What We Can Learn from Wright City Academy Toolkit.
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