Online learning already thrives in these San Diego Unified schools; here's what we've learned from their success

Posted: Friday, March 27th 2020

In San Diego and around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a host of new challenges for everyday life, notably academic instruction at all levels. For students, parents, and teachers alike, the fear of a “lost” academic year has been a major concern.

Last week, Superintendent Cindy Marten announced that, at least in San Diego Unified, this school year will not be lost.

Earlier this week San Diego Unified shared the general outline for an online distance learning plan to complete the school year for all students. While schools will remain closed for the time being, the move online will allow students to continue the year’s academic progress. Superintendent Marten sent a letter to all families explaining the plans in place.

For many San Diego Unified students and teachers, online learning is nothing new. San Diego Unified students use computers in the classroom daily. The coming change will take that learning style out of the classroom and into student homes.

Here is how online learning works in two successful San Diego Unified schools.

Mt. Everest Academy model

Mt. Everest Academy is a K-12 independent study school in the district that provides blended learning, which is a mix of online and traditional classroom instruction. About 280 students are currently enrolled at Mt. Everest, a Western Association of Schools and Colleges -accredited school that assists students learning from home using a state-adopted curriculum with the support, guidance and the supervision of credentialed teachers. 

As one of only ten schools in the State of California recognized as an Exemplary Independent Study School, Mt. Everest will serve as an example the district hopes to model for all students while classrooms are closed. 

Maintaining a routine

Mt. Everest Principal Courtney Browne says online schooling works especially well for students who can maintain a regular routine when it comes to getting the work done. Also, when students work at their own pace, they can often complete the material more quickly online than in a traditional classroom setting. “If the lesson plans are laid out and clear, often lessons can get done in less than a typical school day,” said Browne.

iHigh Virtual Academy is another San Diego Unified school that integrates online learning. iHigh is an independent study 9-12 high school with a current enrollment of about 50 students, who receive the majority of instruction through an online format. 

Program Manager Eunique Johnson says once a student is up and running online, he or she usually doesn't need a lot of oversight to finish assignments - great news for the many parents now juggling their student’s schoolwork and their own job while working from home. But setting up a daily routine is key to student success.

“Kids can complete the lessons alone, without a parent helping them,” says Johnson. “But students really have to put themselves on a schedule to make online learning work. Initially, most students don’t realize how much they have to plan out their day. They have to set deadlines and stick to them.”

Teachers are learning, too

Although San Diego Unified teachers would prefer to be back in their regular classrooms with students, they’re embracing the online distance learning model because it provides the possibility of finishing out the school year. 

“Educators understand any solution will not be a substitute for continued classroom learning, where students can benefit from experienced instruction,” says Kisha Borden, President of the San Diego Education Association. “For that reason, educators will need to play a major role in managing the transition to distance learning for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis.”

Teachers in the District will be receiving online training from April 6 through April 24. Many educators who already have extensive experience with online learning say the transition from the classroom to the computer is usually more difficult for teachers than students. 

“For teachers, it takes planning in a whole different direction,” says Kris Rodenberg, an online instructor at both Mt. Everest Academy and San Diego State University, and the district’s 2019 Teacher of the Year runner-up. “Teachers can’t use the same material they’re using now in the same way. Teachers have to be thoughtful about what is assigned, and how it’s being assigned.”

Still, a sudden shift to online learning represents the type of tech-based adaptation teachers have successfully made before. “When I started teaching 36 years ago, we didn't have smartboards in the classroom,” Rodenberg said. “We didn't have cell phones. You need to know the thinking behind their use pedagogically."

“A challenge we are up for”

While the plan to provide students with the necessary technology is still being worked out, Superintendent Cindy Marten stressed it must be equitable for all students, including those who lack access to the internet or are homeless.

“From the start of the public health crisis, we have been clear about two main commitments: our students will have the chance to complete their academic year, and the opportunity to do so will be available to all of our students, no matter what challenges they face,” said Marten.

One challenge being worked on right now is the task of providing all students with the technology they will need, but the district has a head start as children already have computers available for use in the classroom.

“How do you flip the switch and turn it into distance learning overnight? That’s a tremendous challenge that we are up for,” Marten said.

Dates to remember

The District is planning a soft launch for online learning on Monday, April 6, which will give teachers, students and staff an opportunity to try out the system and address any issues that may arise. On April 27th, online instruction and grading will begin for 90 percent of District students who attend school on a traditional academic calendar. For year-round students on spring break until April 27th, graded instruction will start on May 11.

“We know our families are eager for their students to continue learning, and our teachers are eager to make that possible,” said Board Vice President Richard Barrera. “We’re providing the best possible educational program that we can to students under the circumstances that we’re in.”

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