New data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that the 2015–16 graduation rate is nearly a point higher than the prior year’s of 83.2 percent. Obviously, there are many factors behind this great success, and one of them is the rise of virtual learning in alternative schools. Blended and virtual learning providers can partner with alternative schools, like Louisiana’s JCFA, to bring education into the hands of underserved populations like the overage and under-credited, as well as high school dropouts. We recently chatted with Erich Hein and Ashley Mills of JCFA to discuss how their educational model works and learn more about its impact on student success.
Where Learning Clicks: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your role at JCFA?
I’m the Data, Research, and Curriculum Coordinator at JCFA, and have been here for about five and a half years. Before that, I worked as an English teacher. In my current role I work to customize the curriculum, and our goal is to get kids to high school and through to post-secondary education or a career path. I work with teachers and do data management for reporting purposes, too.
I’ve been at JCFA since May 2017, working in communications and constituent relations, and a little bit of development.
WLC: Tell me a little bit about JCFA and your student population. What does your acronym stand for?
We started as Jefferson Chamber Foundation Academy, but when we expanded our charter and our reach to students outside of Jefferson County we didn’t want to be limited by a name, so we renamed ourselves JCFA. We like to think it stands for “Joined by Circumstance and Family Always,” or “Joint, Commitment, Flexibility, and Achievement,” but those are definitely unofficial.
We operate four schools in Louisiana, three of which are in New Orleans. We serve around 450 students in the state in grades 8–12. Most of the kids we serve are overage and under-credited. Many dropped out of high school, so we work to get them back on track.
We offer a self-paced program, which is really good for students. They set weekly attainment goals with their teachers and counselors to help them stay on track. There’s no fear of being left behind if it takes you a little longer to understand a concept because students aren’t comparing themselves to one another. If they have to miss school for work or some other reason, they aren’t going to get left behind.
Exactly. We also focus on small class sizes with no more than 22 students in a class. Each classroom has a subject area teacher and one or more tutors available to help students. Students can earn credit at their pace and on their timeline through our flexible academic day, which is one of the beauties of virtual learning in alternative schools.
WLC: Sounds like you are doing really exciting work with a population of students who are often underserved. What does your enrollment process look like?
Students take three classes at a time and earn credits on a rolling basis. We are not semester based, so once they complete the requirements in a class, they earn the credit and can move on to the next course. All of our students are using Edgenuity®, but we do offer some offline classes by partnering with local technical education schools. These classes focus on getting students exposed to career opportunities. We also offer dual enrollment and many of our graduates leave here with college credit and, of course, a high school diploma.
WLC: That’s fantastic. What do some of your graduates go on to do after they leave JCFA?
About 60% of students who graduate also complete a credential that would prepare them to enter the workforce. All of our graduates take the WorkKeys® test, which is created by ACT®. Graduates can take their score on that test and show it to an employer to prove they are trainable. It often results in a higher starting salary, too. Louisiana has lagging indicators, but within 6 months of graduating, 36% of our 2014 graduates went on to post-secondary education. That number is through the roof compared with other alternative schools, and we pride ourselves on the robust assistance we provide students to get them connected to both college and career.
WLC: That’s impressive! So tell me a little about how you’re using Edgenuity.
We have been using Edgenuity since our inception in 2010, and it is integral to the way the program functions. As I said before, we have a small classroom environment, so instead of a traditional classroom with one teacher in charge of 20 kids, we have an English room with a teacher and at least one tutor to help facilitate learning. We can pull students out strategically to help with specific needs, which makes our model very flexible. And the students are working on their own courses at their own speed, so we meet the needs of the individual instead of teaching to the middle. Many of our students have commitments outside of school, like children, jobs, or even court visits, which prevent them from maintaining a normal school schedule. The flexibility of our program allows them to engage with the learning when they’re here, and will pause when they can’t be here. So if a student misses class, they don’t fall behind because the class waits for him to log back in, and catch up. This is also beneficial for our highfliers because they don’t have to spend a week on a unit they understand in an hour.
We also use prescriptive testing, which allows the students to start close to where their knowledge of the course starts. This is really helpful for our students since many of them have left high school after attaining some credits.
Rather than make them sit through lessons they remember well, they can skip those and focus on the lessons they were never exposed to, or didn’t master. It allows the students to capitalize on the knowledge they already have.
Exactly, it meets the students where they are and helps them progress faster.
WLC: It must be so motivating for students to begin a course halfway through instead of having to start over. Tell me a little bit about how you structure the student’s school day.
We do encourage students to do some activities at home, but mostly they work in our building. We start classes at 9:05 and go to 12:30. During that time, students have three class periods that average about an hour and a half each. Assessments must be done in the classroom to maintain the fidelity of the program, but we encourage them to do activities at home until they get to a stopping point.
We also allow students to do what we call “bank hours.” So if a student knows they can’t be at school on Friday, they can come in early or stay late to bank time. If families want to go on vacation, or a student knows they have a work commitment, they can work ahead in classes and it helps keep them on pace. When kids are especially close to graduation, they will work with our teachers to stay even later than normal so they can finish those last few lessons and graduate.
WLC: It sounds like you have designed a program that really helps students succeed. Tell me a little about those successes.
One of the things we do really well is get kids to graduation. Over 50% of kids with 6 or fewer credits remaining graduated by the end of the year. That’s where we’ve been focusing, getting kids who are close to graduating out, but now we have a big class of 9th graders coming in. So our focus is broadening to encompass credit attainment as well as graduation.
But overall, our students are really successful and we have a lot of anecdotal success stories to share. For example, one student went from 8th to 12th grade in 3 years, so driven students can really accomplish a lot with our model. We also help the older students who are under-credited reach graduation. One of our first students was a 17-year old 9th grader, and his teachers told him he wouldn’t graduate before he aged out. So he came to JCFA and graduated in 2½ years and earned 12 college credits at the same time.
I recall a student who was doing great at her regular school, but was frustrated by the fact that her teachers were teaching to the common denominator. She wanted to be challenged and transferred with the hopes of graduating early. So not all of our students are behind; our model also supports those who are driven and want more than the traditional timeline can deliver.
That’s definitely true, Ashley. We once had a pregnant student who was very motivated to get her diploma before the baby arrived, and that just wasn’t possible at her prior school.
Education makes a huge difference and we’ve seen several generations of families come through our doors and help to motivate each other.
One student will come through, and then encourage their siblings or spouse to do the same. It really demonstrates that we’re changing lives.
WLC: Are there others using virtual learning in alternative schools that you strive to emulate?
Yes, there are other alternative schools that we work closely with. They are doing similar work, but we are considered the highest performing alternative high school in our area and maybe the second in the state. We really differentiate ourselves when it comes to test scores. Ours are significantly higher because our model is based on accomplishment. Students are only going to pass a class when they finish the work and they do not get credit for seat time.
Louisiana also has an end-of-course exam, and our students’ scores are significantly higher than other non-traditional schools. The state measures schools on a lot of things we have no control over, like cohort graduation rates, but we can control the end-of-course exam, therefore we focus on that. If a student earns a credit, they should be able to pass that test, and that’s where we focus our efforts.
WLC: The end-of-course exam scores are really telling. That’s what shows educators and the state that students are actually learning the material being presented. We love the work you’re doing with students; is there anything else you would like to add?
We haven’t talked about how our students graduate. It’s a really unique model because they graduate the day they finish the last test of their last class. We aren’t on a semester model, so our kids work year-round. The longest break is around the winter holidays, when we close for about 10 days. But this allows students to graduate when they are done, instead of waiting until the end of the semester. We do offer graduation ceremonies twice a year so students can walk across the stage, but they are not required to stick around once they finish their last class.
And these kids are earning high school diplomas, not GEDs, which is a huge distinction. We celebrate their graduations as soon as they finish that last test by announcing them over the intercom and taking a photo right away. We keep the photos on our Wall of Fame right at the entrance of the school. It’s a great way to recognize their accomplishment and encourage others to keep working towards the goal of graduation.