By Gerri Miller
Every Elmore County public school student will go home with a Chromebook this fall and the opportunity to do more of their work online as part of a “blended learning environment.”
The Elmore County School System has spent $1.2 million on technology upgrades so that every student can have access to a virtual platform. School Superintendent Richard Dennis said the COVID19 crisis “forced us to do something we needed to do, only we got there sooner.”
He told the Elmore County School Board Monday that the school system is in a better position to utilize a virtual learning environment for the upcoming school year as a result of having to deal very quickly with a crisis.
The school system initially purchased 3,500 Chromebooks and later purchased an additional 2,800, Dennis said. Dennis said he chose Chromebooks “because it was the most inexpensive piece of technology that would do what we needed it to do.”
“This puts us in position of having one-on-one technology from kindergarten to 12th grade,” he said. “Students can manage the Chromebooks and software programs to better understand and complete the curriculum in a blended learning environment.”
“If you are able to go and operate in a virtual format, it opens up opportunities you didn’t possibly consider before,” Dennis said.
A student in a blended learning environment would still go to school but could also learn at home when needed. For example, if a student is sick, rather than go to school and possibly infect other students, that student could do his or her assignments at home. Dennis said the student would still need to bring a doctor’s note.
The new system could also reduce the need for students to make up for bad weather days at the end of the school year, he said. “Even in inclement weather, if students do their work virtually, those days could be counted as the students being present,” he said.
Dennis said one issue that is important is how to track the student’s participation with the online curriculum. The school system currently uses the software programs Edgenuity (Grades 6-12) and Odysseyware (K-5) and is working to get a site license for each school. The programs set up lessons for the student and track student participation.
The county has offered virtual learning on a smaller scale for two years through Elmore County’s Diverse Gateway to Education, also known as EDGE. The program is open to students between the 6th and 12th grades who attend school in Elmore, Autauga, and Montgomery counties. It offers students the opportunity to take classes from home and on their own schedule.
One of the biggest challenges to virtual learning is making sure that all students have access to the internet. Although it is not a total solution, the Elmore County Commission in April invested $65,000 to increase the number of public hotspot locations throughout the county.
The project is a partnership with the Commission, the Elmore County Board of Education, Elmore County Economic Authority, municipalities in the county and Central Access, a subsidiary of Central Alabama Electric Cooperative.
Currently there are 63 public hotspots available throughout the county among Central Access, Spectrum, the City, the Board of Education and other community sites. Plans are in place to increase the public hotspot opportunities to close to 100 sites over the next several months.
When it comes to developing a handbook for virtual/brick & mortar school system, Dennis is looking north. The Athens City School System utilizes a combination of virtual and brick and mortar learning and Dennis has had conversations with a friend in the school system. “We are looking at their student handbook and kind of making it our own,” he said.
He said the Board of Education will review the new handbook that will include the changes in policy when it meets in June.