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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

It's easy to get caught up in the educational discourse throughout any given day. Everyone has his or her thoughts and ideas on what should happen next in the educational landscape. While discourse is healthy, personally, I like to see and hear about this discourse in action.

One of the current trends in education is the concept of personalized learning. Students are surrounded by infrastructures that allow access to information at speeds never imagined by educators several years ago; however, little has changed in the way we design our day-to-day instruction or our classroom. Some suggest a one-to-one initiative is the way to go, while others dismiss the concept. Regardless of the ratio of devices you integrate, there still needs to be dynamic, engaging learning taking place.

If we learned one thing from the career of Steve Jobs, it's that we shouldn't let anyone tell us what is going to be next; rather, we should create that next thing. This type of innovative perseverance is happening at Palisades School District in Pennsylvania. The Palisades Cyber Academy launched this year, driven by a demand for e-learning options, an increased focus on global connections, fiscal responsibility, and a desire to enact change that will impact student achievement. Through this launch, Palisades Cyber Academy is fostering communal learning while blending the traditional and the digital, the bricks and the clicks.

Below is a conversation I had with Rich Kiker, Director of Online Learning at Palisades School District.

What is the Palisades Cyber Academy?

Palisades Cyber Academy is an online and hybrid learning program that is fully integrated into the Palisades School District. This program gives the district the ability to offer a range of online courses and scheduling options to better meet the needs of its students who would like to pursue custom and cyber learning opportunities. The program currently serves high school students and will be expanding its offerings to the entire K-12 population in the near future.

What motivated you to start this program?

It became clear that our students and families had a need or want for online learning that Palisades was not providing. The number of students attending a cyber charter has steadily increased over the past five years, and this indicated that we needed to do a better job. During our initial conversations it quickly became evident that there were a great number of positive outcomes in build an in-house cyber program. They include increasing college readiness, improving digital literacy, and raising the technical capacity of the entire community, including students, teachers, administrators, and other community members.

What does it take to get a Cyber Academy off the ground?

I hesitate to answer this question with anything other than an answer of hard work and perseverance. The truth is that every program needs to be customized to the needs of that community and district. In order to be relevant, school leaders need to evaluate individual needs to meet them with a solution that is not canned. However, I would suggest preparing a proposal for the school board that includes solutions and benefits on how the program can save money, benefit the entire community, and improve student achievement. After board support is gained, the next step is to start the action planning process. Lastly, I would recommend identifying a program leader that has the ability to be a proactive communicator and relationship builder as much as the technical skills she will need to possess.

What are the finances involved with developing a cyber academy?

Startup costs will vary depending on the size of a school and the number of teachers and students involved. The big-ticket items include student laptops, purchasing an LMS or partnering with a solution provider, and professional development. In its first year, the Palisades Cyber Academy is servicing about 25 cyber students who would have otherwise chosen another cyber learning option, and close to 100 other traditional students who are taking an online course or participating in a class using an LMS. I would estimate our start-up costs at $35,000.

What platform did you use to facilitate the cyber academy? Why did you choose this specific platform?

We have chosen the Blackboard platform through Blended Schools -- a robust solutions partner in Pennsylvania. Some factors that influenced our decision include the library of fully developed courses from Blended Schools, the fact the Blackboard is a leading solution in higher education, and the experience and service record that Blended Schools brings to the table.

How did you get teachers on board to facilitate this type of learning without having a union issue arise?

We made a commitment from the onset that we wanted our teachers to be the instructors. We are aiming for the holistic improvement in what community based education looks like. Without teachers at the center of this process you can't have that impact. Palisades knows that the support, connectedness, and dedication that our teachers can provide to our learners are unequal to any other model. As a result, our teachers have been some of the biggest supporters.

How did you generate community buy-in?

Surprisingly enough, community buy-in was easy to come by. We are openly transparent in this design process while sharing the diverse range of opportunities that exist in a program like this. We are also clear about the challenges like keeping online students motivated. Additionally, we are quite candid about the quality of education we can provide. This program delivers the best customizable learning options to the students in our community while saving district and taxpayer funds. In fact, in the first year this program will have an estimated gross savings on cyber expenditures of $325,000.

What advantages does this type of school have over the traditional model?

Options. K-12 education is not becoming competitive. It is competitive now. We need to bury old bureaucratic and institutional habits. Public schools have always been a local monopoly on the education and innovation has been stifled as a result. Students should be given the opportunity to have customized learning solutions including the full range of brick and click possibilities. In this model students can have internships or participate in work-study programs while completing graduation requirements online. A high school senior who is short a few credits can choose to have a part-time job while making up credits online. A freshman can have a full schedule in the physical building and add an online course or two each semester in an effort to graduate in as little as three years.

What results are you seeing or have you collected that would make a school want to adopt this type of program?

The greatest result to me is the refreshed and invigorated team leading the charge, headed by our newly appointed Superintendent, Bridget O'Connell. Rather than tackling another year of modest improvements for student achievement, we are going head on into authentic educational reform. That energy and enthusiasm directly impacts the student population we serve. It feels like we have been talking about how education needs to change for way too long. I am fortunate enough to be in a position where we are rapidly pushing education where it needs to go, and it feels great. For us the pinnacle of success in K-12 should be to create a culture of learning that fully prepares students with the abilities to be successful in life. We feel the global pressures for increased digital citizenship and customized learning. Our response includes a multitude of solutions and we encourage others to do the same.

The team at Palisades is more than willing to share its work with any district looking to start a cyber program. Rich Kiker can be found on Twitter at @rkiker or you can visit the Palisades Cyber Academy website.

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