The Future of Education

By Mark Kushner
For M Magazine, June, 2012

Silicon Valley Charter School Offers a New Way of Learning

The 21st Century School

For high school student Laz Comstock, each school day meant being frustrated by constant disruption in the classroom. It meant getting behind when he wasn’t able to grasp some of the concepts in the way they were presented. For his brother Felix, school meant not being challenged enough, waiting for others to master the materials.

They both found themselves in a "one-size-fits-all" learning environment that wasn’t the right fit for either of them.

Then they found Silicon Valley Flex Academy, an innovative program blending online education with onsite teacher instruction. A tuition-free, public charter school, Silicon Valley Flex Academy and its partner school, San Francisco Flex Academy, combine the flexibility of online learning with a "brick and mortar" environment where students at tend class on campus five days a week during regular school hours.

How Flex Works

Students in grades 6–12 work off a flexible learning plan that enables them to progress at a more individualized pace than in a traditional school. At Flex, a typical student’s day is comprised of learning with interactive instructional software, peer to peer collaboration, group project work, enrichment time in Math and English rooms, and direct intervention instruction from California-credentialed teachers in small classrooms in the form of ‘Flex Break-Out Sessions.’ This means that students’ progress at a pace that is right for each of them and at the same time receive all the support needed to succeed.

Academic coaches also support students academically and socially on a daily basis. Small group and one-on-one instruction takes place to keep the student on track and progressing at a pace that is comfortable, yet challenging.

Laz says that at Flex he’s excited by what he is learning, and his mother says he is able to master each lesson before moving on to the next, building a strong foundation for learning. When he needs more help in a particular area, he can work with teachers and academic coaches, who also have more time for personalized teaching. And he says there is less distraction when he is learning at his laptop in a learning lab so he can focus.

The "blended  earning" model at Flex is designed to maximize each student’s full potential—an education that fits the individual student—so kids of all backgrounds and aptitudes can thrive in middle school, high school and beyond.

Using the award-winning K12 curriculum, onsite instruction and online coursework is integrated with classic, traditional books and hands-on materials as well as labs. With the computer-driven learning instruction, Flex can also offer a large range of courses from core to AP and electives not always available at traditional brick and mortar schools, such as Graphic Design, C++ programming, Marketing, Anthropology, and many World Languages such as Spanish, French, Latin, Chinese, Arabic and Japanese.

Generally, middle school students do about 40 percent of the work online (60 percent for high school), with the rest of the work offline— working with peers and teachers, reading books, solving math problems on paper, conducting science experiments.

More families are choosing blended learning

Online education and blended learning are both quickly growing in California. Flex Academies in Silicon Valley and San Francisco had 350 students enrolled last year. Students come from all over the Bay Area to attend.

The beauty of Flex

Academies is that they can successfully serve a wide range of students with a diversity of needs. One might be an accelerated student who moves through language arts faster than classmates and takes the time to delve deeper into history. Another might be a student who is struggling in his traditional school to excel in English, but due to the innovative Flex model, is able to focus extra attention where needed. Both types of students therefore benefit from the ‘blended learning’ model’s flexibility that allows customization and accounts for different learning styles.

For many students, this also means a big (and popular) change from their brick and mortar school—less homework after school if one is on track. Because Flex Academies are progress based, a pupil who grasps the material quickly can work through the lesson in school by demonstrating master y of that lesson, rather than completing additional and unneeded assignments at home.

Another advantage cited by many students—fewer "lunch table politics." Because of their varied schedules, mixed learning areas and independent work, Flex students say they tend to interact more with each other on a one-on-one level, with less segregation between grades. Because everyone is working at their own pace, students of ten don’t know what grade other students are in, so they forge friendships based on similar interests and demeanor, not on grade level.

Still a fun place to learn

While it’s different in many ways than a traditional school, the school walls and break out rooms hold colorful student book projects, posters for student council elections, and photos of events, just like any other school. There’s a cafeteria with healthy lunches from Revolution Foods, dances, field trips, and even science camp. In the spring, the schools hold prom and graduation. Silicon Valley Flex hopes to add soccer and swimming teams during the 2012-2013 school year.

As students and their needs continue to evolve, education should evolve with them. Technology can enable educators to move away from the one-size-fits-all model, reaching students through their individual strengths and aptitudes. The flexible schedule, independence, broad course selection and technology at Flex prepare students for life after high school in the workplace with the 21st century skills needed. Flex offers a place for students to reach their potential and thrive.

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About Mark Kushner

Mark Kushner is the Executive Director of Flex Public Schools, a California public-benefit non-profit corporation whose mission is to create outstanding blended learning schools where each child’s full potential is developed with engaging, individualized online learning in an onsite setting. He also teaches an annual course on charter schools at Stanford University’s School of Education and Graduate School of Business. Flex Public Schools holds the San Francisco Flex Academy (SF Flex) and Silicon Valley Flex Academy (SV Flex) charters.