Every school day before the pandemic, the students of Dacusville Middle School in Easley, South Carolina, would log on to their district-issued laptops in their classrooms to take an online elective course.
The grades 6-8 school, which only has 330 students, was able to expand the online course options over the past several years as the courses became more popular and as student outcomes in all courses increased. The online courses became such a focus that Dacusville created a virtual learning lab that developed into a core study period in every student’s daily schedule.
When the pandemic hit earlier this year, the middle school’s students had an easier time adapting to remote learning because they had the experience of attending courses and managing assignments and assessments online, said Principal Wanda Tharpe.
Now, as students gather in socially distanced classes for both in-person lessons and virtual courses, school administrators and officials with the Pickens County School District are planning to increase virtual classes across the district to make learning more personalized for individual students’ preferences and strengths, while still improving face-to-face learning.
According to Superintendent Danny Merck, the graduation rate for the district is 87.7%, up from 66.7% in 2007, adding the virtual offerings contributed to the increase. “We want to put students in the best position to succeed,” Merck said. “We’re hoping to show that latitude leads to improvements.”
But there’s a lot of work to do, Merck said: “We’ve made a lot of mistakes. That’s what happens when you’re innovative."
Expanding students’ options
School administrators describe Pickens County, which is northwest South Carolina, as a rural and tight-knit community that enthusiastically gathers every year (except this year) to host the Upper SC State Fair. Dacusville is a small part of the county. Many Dacusville Middle School staff members grew up in the community and have children attending area schools, Tharpe said.
Merck said trust is important to the governance of the school district. That faith that school employees and the school board have in each other allows administrators and teachers to be bold in making transformative changes, learning from disappointments and celebrating successes, he said. Merck credits the high level of trust to the district's low principal turnover rate and lack of teacher shortages.
The small size of some of the district's schools, however, put limits on the elective classes. Providing a variety of classes equally across nine middle and high schools was not possible. The virtual offerings started several years ago to align Advanced Placement courses among high schools. One high school had 27 AP courses, while another had 10. Through synchronous online courses taught by Pickens County teachers, the classes were equally distributed, Merck said.
Another challenge was the lack of world language classes at the middle school level, as it was financially challenging to offer a wide variety of classes at all schools. In 2014, the district contracted with Virtual SC, a free state-sponsored online course program for students in grades 7-12, to provide just a few business education courses as electives.
Dacusville Middle soon added a beginner Spanish course and hired Michelle Stephens as a virtual lab manager to monitor students while they attended online classes. Stephens overseas students who are in the same classroom but may be attending different online lessons. She helps with technical issues but also guides the middle-schoolers’ progress and teaches them how to be productive online learners. That includes knowing how to request clarifications from online instructors and how to manage assignment deadlines, Tharpe said.
Over the years, the district’s offerings grew as it contracted with Elevate K12 for more academic options for virtual learning in middle schools. There are 16,000 students in the district and about 4,500 students are taking Virtual SC or Elevate K12 virtual courses the first semester of this school year, Merck said. The district’s contract this year for virtual courses in three middle schools is $130,000, according to an email from administrators.
Dacusville Middle, where half of the students receive free or reduced-priced lunches according to federal data, now offers more than a dozen electives, giving students exposure to classes that interest them and that are prerequisite courses for high school math and world language courses. For example, some of the virtual classes include keyboarding, webpage design, entrepreneurship, Spanish I and II, child development and personal finance. Students in 7th and 8th grades also can receive high school credits for the virtual classes, Tharpe said.
“[The students] are often entering high school with more credits than their peers at larger [middle schools],” she said. “Being in a small school and being able to provide opportunities for our students and allowing them to personalize their learning is great.”
One entrepreneurship virtual lab class even created a personalized graphics design business in 2015 called Goldwave Graphics. One year, the young business leaders earned enough in profits to take a field trip to Disney World, Tharpe said.
More importantly, the students running the business, all of whom have IEPs and are in a self-contained special education classroom, are learning business skills such as ordering, inventory, packaging and customer service that can benefit them in their careers after high school, Tharpe said.
“The products coming out of there are just phenomenal. It’s what you would buy in specialty shops,” said Tharpe, adding the business is on hiatus this year because of the pandemic.
Measuring success, learning from challenges
To measure success, Tharpe said she looks at how well the students did, if the learners enjoyed the virtual course, their engagement levels and whether they had options that fit their interests. For the first five years of the virtual course offerings, there was a 100% pass rate in all the courses, she said.
When the pandemic emerged this spring, Tharpe said the school was unsure of how the virtual classes, along with the in-person classes, would transition to an all-remote setting. Support from Virtual SC and Elevate K12, plus the students’ previous experience with virtual learning made the abrupt change smoother than anticipated, she said.
The district has been encouraged by students' performance across the district in the virtual courses and the enthusiasm for the variety of course options so much so that the system would like to increase the number of available courses, Merck said. A virtual academy director will be hired to oversee districtwide efforts, he said.
The district has learned a lot during its journey with virtual course offerings. For example, Merck said when the program first began, the focus was entirely on the academics of the classes. As the program developed, educators realized the need to incorporate student well-being into the instruction, which helped build trusting relationships between instructors and students.
"The same lessons from in person apply to virtual but I did not realize this early on," Merck said in an email.
The superintendent anticipates challenges as the program expands. “Innovation requires us to monitor and adjust, not quit when difficulty occurs,” he said in an email. “Equity must not be ignored in 2020 as we attempt to continuously improve how, where and what we learn.”