How your district can build a better online elementary school
Educators, parents and other K-12 stakeholders have developed some pretty strong opinions about online learning over the last few years, particularly when it comes to elementary school students. And whether you think it succeeded or failed during the pandemic, what’s not up for debate is that leaders in many districts are seeking to improve remote and hybrid instruction so they can give early-grades students and families more flexibility with their learning.
Administrators who want to refine a single program or launch an entire online elementary school can find guidance from Florida Virtual School, which began offering online learning in the late 1990s and has added 10,000 students to its flex elementary program in the past four years. The program has held onto the surge of students that enrolled during the pandemic while avoiding any drops in test scores, says Robin Winder, senior director of instruction for Florida Virtual School and its FlexPoint Education Cloud.
Online learning got a bad rap during COVID, but not because it’s fundamentally incompatible with K-5 learning. Winder says she believes too many districts were caught off-guard by the sudden shift to remote instruction while many teachers, through no fault of their own, hadn’t been trained to teach online. Students, meanwhile, lacked devices, connectivity and direction to give the experiment a fair chance of succeeding.
Winder does not agree with the now commonly accepted belief that only certain types of students can succeed online. This puts the onus on educators to get to know families and how students learn best. To design effective instruction, online teachers need to know whether students are auditory or kinesthetic learners, or if there might be language barriers. “Figuring out how to individualize instruction for students guarantees most kids can be successful online,” Winder says. “You have to know what their strengths are and where the gaps are and how to fill those gaps.”
Winder says there are five keys to building an engaging online elementary school:
1. Start with the basics. Determine whether your virtual elementary school will be fully online, blended or hybrid. And set goals—for example, are you going to expand on your in-person curriculum offerings? Provide students with credit recovery? Build a personalized program to meet each student’s needs?
2. Focus on your teachers. Hire staff and teachers who are passionate about online learning, and then ensure they receive ongoing professional development and have adequate resources for digital instruction. “Elementary teachers are a special group of educators,” Winder says. “But it’s about more than just hiring the right teachers. You have to offer consistent mentoring and professional development because online learning is ever-evolving and changing.”
3. Utilize interactive curriculum. Elementary-age students have shorter attention spans, which is why it’s vital to provide them with group learning time and live lessons that include videos and games. One of the Florida Virtual School’s Spanish teachers, for example, gives students a choice board for how they want to demonstrate their learning during class discussions.
4. Build a strong community: Parents need to feel confident that online school leaders know their children as individuals and care about their success. Online schools can offer self-paced onboarding courses and encourage teachers to make welcome calls to students and parents. Other effective outreach efforts include student and parent ambassador programs and family resource centers. The Flordia Virtual School’s teachers connect with each parent at least once a month and can meet families face-to-face at regional meetups.
5. Plan for all scenarios: Situations that are unique to the online learning environment include what teachers and staff do when a student stops responding or submitting assignments. Leaders must develop guidelines so teachers and staff know how to approach a variety of scenarios.
When it comes to devices and connectivity, Flordia Virtual School makes parents aware of the technological requirements for students to participate. The school’s foundation provides assistance for families who need help acquiring the hardware.
Interested in edtech? Keep up with DA's Future of Education Technology Conference®.