Middle school is a challenging educational period for students and for the teachers to whom they are entrusted. Created as a way to alleviate overcrowding in K-8 schools, middle schools are now seen as an essential period in creating a successful lifelong learner. During middle school, a student makes two important transitions—from child to teenager and from pupil to independent learner—and these simultaneous shifts can often create tensions that complicate the opportunity to learn and succeed.
In two recent pieces on Learning Outside the Lines, we explored some of the benefits of online learning for middle school students in areas such as pacing and catering to the unique social needs of middle schoolers. But what’s it like on the front lines of education? We sat down with regular contributor, Daniel Mahlandt, Director of the Ephrata Virtual Academy, of the Ephrata Area School District in Pennsylvania, to find out how personalized learning benefits the middle school population.
FuelEducation: What online learning options does the Ephrata Virtual Academy offer for middle school students?
Daniel Mahlandt (DM): The Ephrata Virtual Academy offers both a full-time online program where students learn entirely from their homes as well as a hybrid program that allows the students to come in for certain classes but take other courses exclusively online. We also offer a lab setting for students who want to blend the benefits of online learning with the on-site benefits for monitoring. Of course, all of our students are able to participate in the social aspects of school, such as dances, sports, and field trips.
FuelEducation: Do many middle school students take advantage of these online learning options?
DM: Yes they do! In fact middle school students are our biggest group of online learners, making up almost half of our entire K-12 program.
FuelEducation: Why do you think there is such demand for personalized learning options among middle school students?
DM: Oftentimes the reasons middle school students choose an online learning program are continuations of the same reasons that they were online learners in elementary school, such as health issues or parental choice. However, some of the demand definitely stems from common social issues at that age; there’s a lot of social anxiety that can really affect a student’s ability to learn, not to mention the instances of bullying that can completely undermine the ability to learn. While student demand is strong, we also see an increase in demand for online programs from parents who are responding to what they see in the media and responding to those fears. Also, the middle school years are the time when gifted and talented students start to focus their energies, particularly in the area of athletics and performing arts, and need greater flexibility to accommodate training, practice, and performance schedules.
FuelEducation: How are these factors accommodated by an online learning program?
DM: Our team works with the student and their family to make sure the student’s needs are being met. It’s very important at this age to make sure the student is a partner, perhaps not an equal partner, but definitely included in the planning process. It’s pretty straightforward for students who need accommodation for a long-term health issue or to accommodate a training schedule. In these cases we’re looking to create a flexible schedule for the student so that they don’t fall behind their peer group. It might be a long-term program, such as the one we’re providing for one of our students who is an elite gymnast, but it also may be a temporary program for a student who is receiving treatment for a health condition, or who is appearing on a television program. For these students the goal is to keep them on track with their classmates so that when they return to school they are able to jump back into the classroom.
Social issues, including bullying, are a little more complicated as we need to deal with the social issue at the same time we create a safe learning environment, keep the student learning, and leave the door open to a return to the physical school in the future. We address anxiety issues by offering students a full-time experience without the need to be on-site full time. Many times we will work with the family’s mental health provider and discuss ways to “keep the student in the game” while still alleviating that anxiety and help make the student feel less “trapped.” Bullying is an even more complicated issue we deal with since many times the negative impact on the student is very subtle, leaving the student with a generally uneasy feeling about being in school, or in a particular class. Depending on the particular situation, it may be appropriate to move the student to a full-time online program, or to the lab. To accommodate parental concern, we look to develop a program that builds parent trust with the administration, and gives parents breathing room to see that the school is a safe environment as well as to understand the learning options available to their student.
Our main goal is to work with all the stakeholders—the teacher, the parents, and most importantly the student—to develop a personalized learning plan that addresses the reasons for the breakdown in classroom learning and get the student learning again. Honestly, for this group of students, just accommodating their need for greater autonomy is an important first step.
FuelEducation: Can you share a success story with us?
DM: One of my favorite stories is about student who struggled in the classroom due to issues stemming from autism. While his autism had certainly been a factor in his learning and development since elementary school, the social issues became more complicated during the middle school years and had a significant impact on his academics. His parents had initially tried a full-time cyber school, and while the student had begun to achieve more academically, they knew that avoiding the social aspect was not meeting their child’s overall developmental needs. Our blend of an on-site structured lab environment—working with our learning specialists for his specific needs—and online courses got the student back in the school, and he is thriving!