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Aurora Institute

Innovative Scheduling: Digital e-Learning Days and Academic Support Periods

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Dr. Eliot Levine

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation

This is the fifth and final post in a series about the Farmington Area Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to the other posts are at the end of this article.

Farmington Tigers MascotInnovations in school scheduling are key elements in shifting to competency-based education. They can enable “anytime, anywhere” learning, ensure that students receive frequent personalized support, and support deeper learning such as high-quality, project-based work. Innovative scheduling is an essential component of increasing organizational flexibility, one of the competency-based education quality principles. Two scheduling innovations in the Farmington school district are Flexible Learning Days and Academic Support Periods.

Working from Anywhere But the School Building

Farmington implemented flexible learning days or “flex days” several years ago. On these days, students don’t come to school but are expected to work via the school’s digital platform. Teachers are available and provide online “office hours.”

One advantage is that school days that in the past would have been cancelled due to inclement weather can now be productive learning days that don’t result in disrupted schedules and extended school years. The district also believes that it’s a great way to learn. Executive Director of Educational Services Jason Berg explained, “Students need to learn how to manage their own time, so we have to set up some experiences to let them learn that—to see that they don’t have to be in school to do learning.”

Flex days aren’t just to prevent school cancellations, however. The district also has two scheduled flex days each year with activities that teachers set up and post online for students to complete on their own schedule. Students can reach teachers digitally during school hours, although they’re also free to complete the work on their own schedules. Some students do group work electronically, and some classes that require out-of-school work, such as a photography class, schedule special activities on flex days. If students have several different activities that they need to get done that day, it is up to them to develop a plan to get it done, with teacher support as needed.

To help caregivers plan for the two pre-scheduled annual flex days, the district announces the dates at the beginning of the school year. The community has also set up some child care opportunities for those days for families who need it, and some of the older students go to the community centers and serve as tutors. Students are not permitted to go to the elementary or middle schools on the planned flex days, but high school students who have work that they can only do in the building are permitted to come if they have their own transporation. (Buses are cancelled on flex days.) The Farmington website provides more information about their flexible learning days.

Superintendendent Jay Haugen explained that the state initially opposed Farmington’s flex days, because they couldn’t be counted as instructional time since students weren’t face-to-face with teachers. He mentioned that flex days are now being used by many Minnesota districts, with support of new legislation. The Minnesota Department of Education website describes their Flexible Learning Year options, which include “forms of optional scheduling of pupils and personnel during the learning year in elementary and secondary schools.”

New legislation described in Appendix B of the Minnesota Automated Reporting Student System manual also provides for up to five “digital/e-learning days” per year due to inclement weather. These are “instructional days on which no students in the school attend at the school site but all students are required to participate in instruction online.” Requirements of the plan include accommodations for students who lack access digital devices or Internet at home, accessible options for students with disabilities, and teachers being accessible online and by phone during normal school hours.

Haugen added, “For us it’s about the learning, not the trappings of learning—such as time in the seat, how good you are at following directions, how well you do on standardized tests. And that’s where the flex days idea comes from. As long as you’re learning, it doesn’t matter where you’re learning or who you’re learning from. If you authentically learn something and can demonstrate your knowledge of it, you should get credit for that. The traditional system has this bizarre structure that learning only counts if students are sitting in a classroom.”

Academic Support Periods

Another scheduling innovation that Farmington developed to facilitate personalized learning is academic support periods at the high school that take place as the first and last period of the school’s seven-period day. These are scheduled during the school day so students can participate and still ride the school buses, as the school believes that having to arrange alternative transportation would prevent many students from seeking the support they needed.

This structure arose from teachers saying they needed “office hours” when they could be available to support students during the school day. During academic support time, students are expected to determine which teachers they should consult or which learning spaces in the school they should utilize based on their current assignments and areas in which they need extra support. Berg said that this daily student-driven time provides essential support and helps students learn how to manage their own time.

Other Posts in the Series:

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Eliot Levine is the Aurora Institute’s Research Director and leads CompetencyWorks.

Follow @eliot_levine