illustration, mans head opened with industrial factories instead of brains

Seward High School in Seward, AK, is the cultural, athletic, and social hub of our community. Our theater hosts most of the concerts and drama productions for the school and the community. It is the default location for community meetings, celebrations, and sometimes even memorials. The pool is open year-round and attracts users from Alaska’s entire Eastern Kenai Peninsula. A majority of the crowd at any given home basketball game is alumni. Many Seward High graduates choose to raise their families here because they want the same quality of life and education for their children that they experienced. The school does not want for community support, as parents’ financial and volunteer contributions to our programs represent a legacy. Parents recognize how these contributions benefited them during their school years, and how their gifts will, in turn, benefit their children.

There is, however, a pitfall to this level of support and parental involvement. Specifically, our parents expect that their children’s school experience will model their own. The problem is that the world, and the students who inhabit it, have changed dramatically. The “factory model” school that our alumni experienced simply does not work for the students we serve today. 

That’s why we developed the “hybrid high school model,” which we define as “the simultaneous provision of traditional and alternative credit acquisition within the school day and beyond.” To understand what that means in practice, you first need to understand the “factory high school model.” 

Sir Ken Robinson, in his TED Talk “Changing Education Paradigms,” explains that factory model schools were designed and conceived in the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment and in the economic circumstances of the Industrial Revolution. The thinking during the Enlightenment was that there were two types of people—those with academic ability and those without. This fit neatly within the economic need of the Industrial Revolution for laborers and managers. Schools were organized on factory lines—compartmentalized by subject and students educated in batches (based on their birthdate and not their interests or ability). This model has been producing laborers and managers, now differentiated by college- and noncollege-bound graduates, ever since.

The endurance of the factory model must be attributed to the relative ease of its management and the fact that it has mostly worked for nearly 10 decades. Students today, however, live in the most stimulating period in this planet’s history. They are too shrewd with technology and have too high of expectations for us to get away with giving them an educational experience that looks like that of their parents. The other concern is that the factory model is producing a third, and exponentially growing, type of student—one who is unwilling or unable to conform and therefore may drop out. It is not the school’s or district’s lack of understanding that inhibits reform. It is overcoming the very real and specifically local expectations that a community has for its school.

One important outcome of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is that it changed the national conversation about the school’s role in education. It is now a forgone conclusion that schools are tasked with, and are held accountable for, the success of every child—regardless of the challenges they bring through our doors. This is a positive, noble, and reasonable expectation. But meeting this challenge within the factory model is simply untenable. Breaking down the factory model to create a school climate that provides success for every student, and doing it within the political expectations that communities have for their schools, is not.

There are two significant mindsets that one must adopt in school reform efforts. First, one must consider to what extent a high school diploma is a measure of a students’ willingness to conform rather than a measure of their ability. Schools are a service industry. Students and their parents are the customers. It is the school’s burden to become all things for all students. If schools cannot or will not meet this challenge, then students will find other programs to finish their education—private, charter, or alternative schools—or become dropouts. These paths result in lower enrollment that translates into less funding at the school level. This creates larger class sizes or dropped programs.

Breaking the Mold

Technology in instruction has made it more possible for schools to be all things for all students. Learning management systems like Blackboard or Canvas easily provide interactive content and assessment activities for students anywhere they can find Internet connectivity. This changes the paradigm of where, how, and when students can participate in active learning—created, managed, and assessed by a classroom teacher with whom they already have rapport. Technology integration also provides the kind of flexibility needed for teachers to begin adopting innovative practices like flipped instruction, blended learning, or distance delivery. Suddenly, traditional organizational structures upon which schools have relied in the old factory model become irrelevant-the bell schedule, seat time, age progression, and even attendance or that set schedule which has been considered a traditional school day. 

The infographic by KnowledgeWorks “A Glimpse into the Future of Learning” ( describes how this mindset will point the way toward a diverse learning ecosystem in which learning adapts to each child instead of each child trying to adapt to school. A master schedule that includes the greatest possible variety of course offerings, instructional techniques, and flexibility for accessing and completing them takes much of the behavioral conformity required of students out of the equation. They are measured instead by their ability.

The second mindset one must consider is that the definition of success should be as unique and fluid as the student to whom the definition is applied. That which would describe success for one high school student should not apply to all of his or her classmates. Consider how the factory model acts as a barrier to this mindset. High school students in the old model embark on a preset path toward a diploma on the first day they begin as freshmen. Variation in most content areas exists in the form of remediation or accelerated classes, but this almost always requires the creation of additional sections in a school’s master schedule—using more valuable resources and stretching teacher allocation. Further, many remediation classes are only offered for elective credit, and many accelerated classes are only available to upperclassmen.

Focus on the Individual

The serendipitous result of technology integration is that it also increases individualization. An incoming freshman who requires remediation in reading and writing, for example, could potentially access two blended English classes simultaneously—providing needed interventions without getting behind in graduation requirements. Conversely, that student’s friend is interested in graduating early. He or she could take regular freshman English within the master schedule and sophomore English asynchronously online. These examples, pushed out on a four-year timeline and applied across all content areas, create vastly differing pathways toward a diploma that wouldn’t otherwise be available in a traditional factory model school without an increase in resources and teacher allocation. Students and their parents are provided with many choices along the way. This creates more ownership for both.

Our school district hosts a data academy each spring. Every school is represented by an administrator and team of teacher leaders. This leadership team reviews many sets of school data and drafts goals for the following school year. Seward High’s 2012 leadership team recognized that the school needed to do more to increase our graduation rate and decrease our drop-out rate. The first mindset change came about with our realization that Seward High offers the only path to a diploma in our attendance area. Other than homeschooling, there is no other alternative or private school option for the students we serve. The burden is on us to become all things for all students on their path to graduation.

We recognized the community expectation that many students would still require credit offerings within the factory model. To meet this need, Seward High committed to becoming a hybrid high school. Seward High maintains a traditional bell schedule for those students who require it. However, we actively pursue and embrace every credit acquisition strategy we can use. These include using the district’s Distance Delivery program, dual-credit opportunities through our partnership with a local community college, on-the-job-training credit for those students who work in the community, and independent study facilitated by our teachers. A quarter of Seward High’s teachers use blended instruction strategies to offer credit—they see their students face-to-face for half of their instructional time and the other half is facilitated through their learning management systems via computer or another device. Finally, Seward High was able to add a part-time certified teacher, at the end of our regular bell schedule, to expand our school day. This time is used for direct, blended, and online instruction for social studies credit and to facilitate math and English interventions. All other high school experiences—cocurricular activities, student council, school dances, and more—remain the same. 

Managing School Credits

As part of remaining flexible, we adopted a Home Release policy for our upperclassmen who are ahead on their credits. Students can leave campus during the school day if they are not enrolled in a traditional class. We allow students on home release to remain on campus, and provide supervised space for them to occupy, as long as they are not disrupting the educational program for the remainder of our students. This has created a culture and climate at Seward High that looks like what one would expect to see in a college student union. Students come and go at all hours of the school day. A casual observation of our halls will almost always show some students rotating their attention between a laptop, textbook, phone, notebook, and a friend or study partner.

We initially pursued this organizational strategy to keep our most at-risk students from feeling overwhelmed if/when they got too far behind in their credits to graduate on time. However, many of our high-flying students are actively pursuing alternative credits to provide more flexibility in their junior and senior years. We actively seek out businesses and service agencies that are interested and able to take on high school students for mentorships or employment. By 2015, 30 percent of our upperclassmen were working in the community during the school day. The scheduling flexibility that our hybrid model creates allowed us to offer a college class within our bell schedule. This, and our other community college partnerships, resulted in more than 30 percent of our upperclassmen finishing the 2015 school year with one or more college credits. We were also able to attribute 18 individual credits to our extended-day program. Finally, our graduating class of 2015 achieved a 92 percent graduation rate. Our freshman and sophomore students clearly recognize the benefits of loading up and/or staying caught up with their credit requirements, and they are already setting goals so they are able to take advantage of this flexibility in their junior and senior years.

An Important Partnership

Parents must give full consent before we grant a home release to students for any part of their day. Also, if an underclassman chooses to double up on credits, we ask parents to engage them in a discussion regarding their goals—graduate early? Work? Take college courses? Or complete a mentorship in their junior and/or senior years? Conversely, our intervention team is able to provide students and parents with a variety of options if/when they fall behind in their credits. This shifts the traditional conversation from the punitive consequences of falling behind to the proactive steps the school can use to further support the student. Both students and parents see themselves as partners with the school. The ownership that is created through the choices that we provide to parents also counteracts the concerns that their children’s education looks much different than their own. 

The factory model cannot thrive in this vision of the future of public education. It was these changes in mindset that brought Seward High School closer to meeting the unique needs of every student. We’re committed to measuring students based on ability and to applying unique definitions of success to each one. In doing so, we have been able to break down and make irrelevant many of the control structures that persist in factory model schools.  

Trevan Walker is principal of Seward High School in Seward, AK.