When I first started as principal in May 2012, Pivot Charter School, Tampa was more like an office than a school. Students worked in cubicles with their online instructors, while small groups worked in classrooms styled like conference rooms. It was self-guided instruction. If a student wanted to work on English all day, she could. However, this self-led, isolated instruction was not conducive to true college and career readiness. At most colleges, students attend lectures, work on projects in small groups, and get assigned reading to prepare for upcoming lectures. In almost any career setting, employees need to collaborate with peers. 

Allowing students to work at their own pace was not working for all students. Students were not prepared for the state testing required for graduation, the ACTs/SATs, or the Postsecondary Education Readiness Test (PERT) exam all Florida students must take for college course placement. Also, our graduation rate was almost 20 percent lower than the average for our sponsoring school district. 

To remedy this, we began researching what we could do to improve college and career readiness and increase our graduation rates. We wanted our students to continue using online coursework, because it allows them to study subjects we may not be able to otherwise provide. Plus, we felt that the technology-based educational experience provided 21st-century learning skills, which is becoming increasingly important in both college and careers. But, we wanted students to have more teacher-led instruction, so we implemented a blended learning model. We also added career-track “academies” for students and focused on building close relationships with both students and their families.

#1: Blending Instruction for Increased Interest and Achievement 

Serving students in grades 6-12, Pivot is the only charter school out of the 50 available through Hillsborough County Public Schools that offers a blended learning model. Pivot has a five-hour school day, which is split into 90-minute blocks. During each 90-minute class, teachers incorporate online courses and other technology into instruction. 

We source our electives and many upper-level core courses using Fuel Education (a program offering standards-based preK-12 courses, content, and assessments) delivered online. Students in credit recovery or enrichment courses can work privately at their own pace with their online teachers. If one of our teachers wants to differentiate instruction, he or she can assign small groups of students to work together while the rest of the class completes an online activity or works in their online course using one of the classroom’s 20 computers. The use of online courses and other technology is supervised by the teacher, which adds more structure to students’ days and helps both our teachers and the online teachers work together to improve student learning. Many of our online courses are taught by our own instructors, providing even more face-to-face support for our students.

In order to prepare educators for blended learning, there has to be extensive training. Educators need to understand differentiation and different modes of grouping and teaching students, as well as how they can make the blended model their own. We focus on modeling and providing mentors who are comfortable with blended learning. In addition, I send a Monday Morning Message every week that provides tips such as what a flipped classroom looks like and ideas for teaching in a blended model. This has helped our educators embrace blended learning, and we have seen test scores rise.

#2: Creating College and Career-Track Academies

In addition to blended learning, we’ve instituted four career-track “academies” to help students get acquainted with a particular field or college major. In these academies, students take their core courses, as well as academy-specific electives to prepare them to enter an associated college major or career. Currently, Pivot offers health sciences, technology, criminal justice, and fine arts academies. We also offer a general College and Career Academy, which allows students to participate in dual-enrollment programs at local community colleges or complete AP courses. Depending upon which academy students attend, they can earn certificates, like technology or health science certifications. We’ve found that students are much more engaged in their courses when they are interested in the content and have a clear goal. 

To choose the focus of our academies, we researched careers that were both popular with college graduates and important to our local economy. For example, the technology and medical fields were popular with parents and students, and they are also needed in our area. A neighboring county has a large polytechnic presence thanks to the new Florida Polytechnic University, and Hillsborough County has many hospitals and medical schools. We also asked our teachers which topics they wanted to teach. 

For each of our academies, we staff instructors with experience in that field. Although they may not be certified to teach, we want to build a staff that can engage students in the topic instead of just lecturing. For example, we had a premedical school student-who became a certified teacher-on staff teaching biology in our Health Sciences Academy. Our current Criminal Justice Academy instructor-who previously was a school security officer and has extensive experience in criminal justice, local police departments, and in training police academy cadets-brought many good ideas to that program. To help these experts lead like teachers, we’ve created an extensive mentoring program with our veteran teachers who help them properly plan lessons and manage the classroom. 

In addition to experienced academy instructors, we plan field trips and other hands-on experiences so students get an idea of what a job in a certain field would entail. 

#3: Educating Students and Parents About the Future

Each year, about half of our graduating seniors are first-generation college students, so we work closely with them and their families to ensure they understand their options for the future. To help students focus on graduation, the guidance counselor and I pull seniors aside to discuss credits, plan class schedules for the upcoming semester, discuss options for scholarships and test preparation, and talk about what they need to do if they are behind. Our senior adviser acts as a homeroom teacher for all seniors; this helps us disseminate information about colleges, scholarship opportunities, career options, and other activities. To educate parents, we conduct parent meetings and host College Nights. The thought of college can be daunting for parents, especially those who did not attend college themselves, so it is important that they feel supported as their students pursue those options.

Measuring Success 

Since instituting these three changes, our graduation rate has dramatically increased. After the 2013-14 school year, our graduation rate rose by almost 20 percent, to 73.4 percent, which is the graduation rate for our sponsor district. Students enrolled before the changes feel the curriculum is much more rigorous now. We believe our standards-​aligned lessons and higher expectations will better prepare students for college and careers. Lastly, our students and families know that the Pivot staff truly has their best interests at heart. When parents decide to send their children to Pivot, they know their child will be supported and challenged to achieve more. 

Liz Bretz is the principal and curriculum director of Pivot Charter School, Tampa in Riverview, FL. Email her at [email protected]

Making It Work

Make this three-step approach to college and career readiness work at your school

Blend instruction for differentiation. Use online coursework to provide an opportunity to work with small groups of students on in-class activities. This allows students to learn at their own pace online while teachers can help struggling students in a small-group setting. 

Expose students to career fields. Cultivate relationships with experts and surrounding businesses to help expose students to various career options. Field trips, hands-on activities, internships, and other live experiences can help students make decisions about their future. 

Maintain close relationships. Inform students of their future options and remind them of deadlines. Host frequent meetings with parents to ensure they know how to support their student through the process.