The school: Butler Tech is a career and technical education school in southwest Ohio that serves more than 18,000 adult and high school students yearly on six campuses. It works with 11 public school districts to educate nearly 1,600 high school juniors and seniors full-time, as well as 150 full-time sophomores, according to AJ Huff, the school's public relations coordinator.
Butler Tech also offers high school students opportunities to earn college credits tuition-free through the state’s College Credit Plus program. The school has a 99% graduation rate, according to Superintendent and CEO Jon Graft.
The high school students who attend Butler apply for admission, but the school does not look at grades, attendance or discipline history. Instead, it considers students’ grit, tenacity and passion, Graft said.
The challenge: Butler Tech administrators — aware of workplace expectations moving away from outdated assembly-line operations and hierarchical management styles to embrace creativity, teamwork and risk — wanted to reform high school programming to include more student voice, choice and freedom to explore passions. They also wanted to break away from the traditional 45-minute session, seven-classes-per-day schedule.
The school’s transformational program, however, still had to comply with state and federal rules for attendance, assessments, core academic course credits and more. Just as the school launched its reformed model, a global pandemic threatened to derail the plans.
The approach: In January 2020, Butler Tech began a revamped schedule called the "5th Day Experience." By reconfiguring schedules, including eliminating spring break, the school allowed students to have a free Friday nearly every week to do what they choose on- or off-campus. But it isn’t a day off.
Graft explained students could choose to work at a job, catch up on school work, explore other career concentrations at the school, go on college visits, or take one-time courses offered at the school such as driver’s education or AP test prep.
The school also developed student schedules that allowed more daily continuous time for lab work in career concentrations while not shortening the length of core academic courses.
“Our job is to facilitate and foster that passion and purpose so that [students] can make an impact on this world,” Graft said recently. “I think we've lost focus that in education, in general, we try to do this top-down approach where we're the keepers of the knowledge. Well, every kid has more knowledge in this than we're ever going to have. We need to facilitate the passion and purpose to direct them into what it is that they want to do for the rest of their lives.”
What happened: Five weeks after launching the 5th Day Experience, the pandemic forced Butler Tech’s campuses to shut down and instruction and learning to take place remotely. The rest of the spring semester was focused on figuring out how to transition hands-on lab work to remote learning platforms and making sure students had internet access and stayed engaged, Graft said.
Instructors had to adapt their technology, bioscience, art and natural science lab lessons into virtual settings. For example, mechatronics instructor Dave Campbell, whose on-campus classroom is a 5,000 square-foot open lab with a variety of equipment such as 3D printers and industrial robots, was able to share simulations of programmable logic controllers remotely with students. He also created online breakout rooms where students could present projects and demonstrations to their peers.
Culinary student Dillon “Smitty” Smith, 17, developed recipes with ingredients he had at home and made tutorial videos describing the different techniques he used.
When school administrators began planning for the 2020-21 school year, they decided to reinstate the 5th Day Experience into the hybrid learning model. It was risky because no one knew if students would choose to come to campus on Fridays, Graft said.
It was also logistically challenging because the school had to develop a website and database to manage sign-up schedules to make sure the campuses would not be over capacity due to social distancing measures. At the same time, it sought to maximize the time students spent in labs or studios working on lessons in their career concentrations, as well as prioritize core academic courses.
Areas of adjustment: While students and staff were quarantining at home last spring, school staff were concerned students would become frustrated about the lack of both social interactions and exposure to hands-on experiences with equipment in lab classrooms. So they used the experience to allow students to sign up for mini-lessons with a variety of instructors.
Students also began showcasing their talents to the school community. Instructors invited dance and music performers in Los Angeles and Nashville to be virtual guest speakers, and the school held a virtual music night with a DJ.
Instructors “were going to be passionately persistent at making sure that they were keeping the connections with their students and whether they were allowed to see them in the buildings or not, they were going to do whatever it took in order to make it happen,” Graft said.
Another area of adjustment was a project the school had started in 2019 to film "The Education Revolution," a documentary about the school’s mission to support students’ individualized learning and passions. When the campuses closed due to COVID-19, it was uncertain whether that project could continue. But for a school willing to take risks even if it’s to fail, the film’s team decided to make the pandemic part of the story.
The results: School leaders learned students and staff were eager to return to campuses and embraced the 5th Day Experience, even in its hybrid status. The pandemic also made the commitment to the 5th Day Experience stronger, said Graft. “I think it ignited and became even more of a catalyst,” he said. “We had the flame lit. [The pandemic] sort of just threw gasoline on it for us.”
He added: “The whole thing was really driven [because] the kids want to be here. They don't have to be here. They want to be here. That's a huge difference when we can put the ownership of learning back on their plate.”
The on-campus 5th Day experiences are popular not only for the students, but for staff as well. Although Campbell typically teaches students about complex engineering applications, one recent Friday, he taught a one-time basic bicycle maintenance class.
“I had about half a dozen kids that said they wanted to learn and we learned how to change a flat tire,” Campbell said. “We learned how to adjust brakes and ride bikes safely.”
Culinary student Dillon Smith says the revised schedule gives him more continuous time in the kitchen in the mornings and allows him to focus on core academic subjects in the afternoons. He recently was the lead chef on the first day Café Lee, the school’s student-run restaurant, opened for business this year.
“The Education Revolution” premiered Feb. 9. School leaders, and students hope that by sharing Butler Tech’s story, other schools will be encouraged to give students more authority in their educational experiences.
“If we don't have other people join the revolution with us, if we're the only ones doing it, then it's not a revolution,” said Huff, the school’s public relations coordinator.