Of the innovative strategies and tools being used in schools today, personalized learning is at the forefront. Steering away from the one-size-fits-all school model can be especially beneficial to struggling students.

Meeting a Need

To provide our students more learning opportunities at Gahanna Lincoln High School (GLHS) in Gahanna, OH, we created a digital learning academy where students have the opportunity to take classes online and advance their academic progress or recover credits in order to graduate. As part of their overall coursework, students can take classes on the GLHS campus in a collaborative and project-based learning facility that includes state-of-the-art furniture, lighting, and learning tools. Creating a different environment can make a huge difference in the success of students who may not have experienced academic success in their lives.

The academy is staffed on a daily basis with state-licensed teachers from a variety of subject areas that provide assistance, instruction, and guidance. It is important to have a mix of different content teachers, including intervention specialists, so students have the opportunity to receive assistance in any course.

At GLHS, we have a large number of students who move into the district each year. Our digital academy program allows students who enter our school at different times of the year the opportunity to earn credits, adjust to their new school, and stay on their current course to graduation.

After researching a number of vendors, we purchased APEX software for the curriculum. The software was chosen for a number of factors such as price, the selection of course offerings available, and the user-friendly inter­face. Another important aspect of the software is the professional develop­ment and user support offered to the school district because it allows the staff to be trained and allows the opportunity to ask questions.

Implementation: The Good and the Bad

To implement an effective digital academy, you’ll need to create a successful learning environment. Consider these aspects:

Provide training for the staff. Software companies who provide content will offer professional development on how to use the software. The portion that is often overlooked is professional development for teaching in a blended learning setting. It is important for teachers to know what is expected of them and how they can teach in this environment to help students the most. Provide professional development for the staff to make the transition to a new learning environment easier.

Construct guidelines and procedures. Set parameters for students, parents, and staff. These should include daily expectations, classroom procedures, and establishing lines of communication. Make sure the guidelines and procedures are a part of the daily learning environment so students and parents are always aware of the expectations.

Build in flexibility. As important as it is to have a program with policies in place, it is also critical to have a program based on flexibility. Let empathy play a role in your digital academy and in your students’ lives. Many at-risk students have never felt compassion and empathy in their lives. Creating a flexible learning environment allows for relationships to be built between staff and students.

Focus on building relationships. One of the most important aspects in any classroom is relationship building. In a digital academy, it is vital to have the right staff in place so relationships blossom. Carefully select the staff that will work in your academy. A solid and respectful student/staff/parent relationship can help your program thrive.

Cater to technology needs. An effective digital academy is built on collaboration and communication between district and building administration and the district technology department. The appropriate technology resources such as devices, network bandwidth, and hardware/software support are crucial for a successful digital academy. Create a technology plan early in the process so everyone is on the same page. You don’t want to put students in a place where they are having trouble accessing the curriculum.

Create schedules that work for students. Students need adequate time to complete coursework as part of the digital academy. You may need to account for travel time to classes (at GLHS we have two separate buildings, so travel time is necessary for students) or you may need to build in time for addressing any technology issues that may occur. Creating a block schedule or modified block schedule allows students a longer amount of uninterrupted work time. At GLHS, we offer two types of schedules: a traditional eight-period day and a four-block schedule. Students are able to take classes within both schedules.

Create incentive programs. Students who have traditionally struggled in school haven’t had many opportunities to receive awards or incentives. A digital academy is a great place to reward students for hard work and strengthen their academic portfolio. For example, reward students for their success with different activities, which might include college visits, community service opportunities, internships, and job placement programs. Allow students to see what hard work can do for them.

Expect Success and Aim Higher

While we have seen success stories in our digital academy, no learning environment has a 100 percent success rate. As we continue to build our digital academy program, we strive to make improvements. Areas we look to improve include:

Progress monitoring for students. Students will complete progress-​monitoring logs that establish clear benchmarks and daily/weekly progress goals.

Parent orientation meetings. In the beginning of each school year, we will have parent orientation meetings to allow the adults to become familiar with the academy expectations and curriculum. This will provide an opportunity for parents to ask questions and learn how their student’s academic progress will be communicated.

Support for staff. There can never be enough professional development for staff. We want to continue to support our staff with effective teaching practices to help students stay engaged.

Effective room structure. We will continue to work with the configuration of our lab setting to allow for small groupings and individualized instruction to assist all learning styles. For example, having different types of furniture allows us to continue to make adjustments for the best fit of all of our students.

School counseling services. We plan to add school counseling services to our program, giving students the opportunity to speak with school psychologists and counselors to address any concerns they may have at school or in their personal lives. Extending support for students in the digital academy is another way to keep them focused on their goals.

Creating personalized learning opportunities for students can change their lives. If you want to help students who may have never experienced success in school, think seriously about providing different learning opportunities for them.

Bobby Dodd is principal of Gahanna Lincoln High School in Gahanna, OH, and a 2016 NASSP Digital Principal Award winner.