Summer School Online: Personalized Learning Improves Student Outcomes


Amanda Cunningham
Tuesday, March 18, 2014 - 1:00am

Recently, we sat down with Daniel Mahlandt, coordinator of the  Ephrata Virtual Academy in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, to talk about summer school.  Summer school is not a popular subject for anyone involved—from students to teachers—but Dan offers some positive insights on how personalized learning can completely change the experience, empowering the student and creating lifelong learners.

FuelEducation: What’s a typical approach to summer school like?

Daniel Mahlandt (DM): Several years ago, when I took on the role of summer school coordinator, summer school looked something like this: students were required to log seat time five days a week for about three hours a day, for five weeks of their summer vacation. Logging seat time was the primary measure of success, and missing any more than a total of thirty minutes of seat time during this period was grounds for automatic failure, regardless of performance in assessments.

FuelEducation: What’s wrong with this approach?

DM: Plenty of things! From the fact that it’s a punitive approach to education that doesn’t foster a love of learning, to the fact that we don’t have any particularly good measures of what a student is actually learning. You know the age-old definition of insanity, that you keep on doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different result? Well, that’s exactly what we were doing to these ‘at risk’ students—we were asking them to take the same classes with the same assessments in the same environment over again and expecting them to get a different result.

Beyond failing the student, summer school also failed our teachers in two ways—first, it asked them to arbitrarily cut content from their courseware, undermining the integrity and value of their work and, secondly, we expected them to successfully teach multiple grade levels or subject concentrations to students who needed individualized attention.

 FuelEducation: What did you do to change how summer school was delivered in the Ephrata Area School District?

DM: After one summer coordinating summer school, I knew that if I was going to continue in the role, I would need to change how we delivered the program to our students. Capitalizing on our research and planning with online and blended personalized learning, my goal was to take these principles and employ them in our summer program. I wanted to build an environment that offered more support to the student, tailoring curriculum to the areas where students were failing and not requiring them to consume a year’s worth of content in five weeks—and also to really laser focus on areas where they were struggling. The first time I tried to do this, it was a mess for teachers as they tried to tailor curriculum and quickly became overwhelmed by the task.  However, with the support of trusted third parties who provided both tailored curriculum and professional development and support, we were finally on the right track.

FuelEducation: What does the Ephrata District’s version of summer school look like?

DM: It looks completely different from a traditional version of summer school. We require students to attend classes in person on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday for the first 2 weeks of the program with optional drop-in lab time on Mondays. After that, we conduct an evaluation with the student and the teacher to see how well they are meeting their academic goals. If their performance, based on assessment, demonstrates strong comprehension of the course material and positive movement toward educational goals, then the student can continue to pursue their studies online from home or coming into the brick-and-mortar building for support for the duration of the program.

FuelEducation: Can you share a success story with us?

DM: From the students’ perspective, I see the same success story over and over again: at the beginning of the summer session, I meet a student who has stopped learning, who feels disenfranchised, and is not motivated to learn. By the end of the summer program, I see students buoyed by success, re-engaged with their teachers, ready to learn, and confident in the knowledge that they have control over their education.

One success that really had an impact on me was a young man close to the end of his high school career who had become homeless over the previous academic session. It was pretty obvious that trying to complete homework when a student is homeless is an exercise in futility. The student, hampered by his circumstance, was failing courses because he couldn’t get the poster board for a presentation, didn’t get sufficient sleep the night before, but not for reasons to do with comprehension of material. Using personalized learning, we were able to tailor his summer program to make up the content he missed or was unable to demonstrate mastery of through incomplete assignments. The student completed summer school in three weeks, completed his graduation requirements, and earned a certification for trade school. It was a very clear reminder for him, and for me, that he was not just his circumstances.


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