By: Jenny Abamu| EdSurge July 11, 2017
The American prison system has been criticized for being a place of punishment instead of rehabilitation. In states such as Alabama, where youth as young as 14 can be tried as adults, going into the system can mean a lifetime of condemnation. However, one school district hopes a personalized virtual school program will offer incarcerated learners a second chance.
Superintendent William “Trey” Holladay is credited with being the brainchild behind the Renaissance School in Athens, Alabama. In 2015, after the state passed a law requiring each local board of education to have a virtual option for students in grades 9-12, the Athens City School District created Renaissance. The K-12 school is a part-virtual and part-blended learning space—meaning students from all over the state can attend the virtual school (which serves over 1000 students, according to the principal Nelson Brown) and students within a 70 mile radius can participate in the blended version of the school (which has approximately 300 to 400 students depending on the year).For students attending the school virtually, all lessons and activities are done online through recordings, live videos and guided readings. The students in the blended version also take most of their courses online, but they occasionally meet in person for mentoring from a certified teacher or for clubs and sports. Parents in both the virtual and blended learning programs are interviewed before students enter to ensure students are supported throughout the online learning process at home.
“This is very different,” says Brown, the new principal at Renaissance who came from a traditional middle school last May. “We sit down with students and create a personalized learning plan for each of them. In the traditional model, you still want to differentiate and meet students’ needs, but sometimes it can be challenging when you need to move a student a little bit faster.”
Brown says technology has made differentiating instruction based on students’ needs easier, noting how the curriculum is personalized through programs such as Odysseyware, a learning management system that allows students to move through lessons at their own pace (based on assessed content mastery). He also uses Mobymax, a software that boasts the ability to help students “find and fix” learning gaps in several subjects.
However, Brown stresses that no software works well without support from parents and teachers. That is why some of his teachers go to the local jails to support their incarcerated student population.
The school currently has 450 incarcerated students attending the school virtually, and their first graduate received their diploma in last month. The program started this past school year because a student in the local county jail wanted to complete his schooling but had no options. (State and federal prison, by contrast, offer some educational services.) According to Dr. Rick Carter, Director of Innovative Programs at Renaissance, there are many youth across the state in county jails that are of school age, but not in school.
“They were lost in the cracks,” says Carter. “They were not at the juvenile facility center. They were sitting in the local jails in each county. Most of them were dropouts.”
“In Alabama, there has been a large focus last year in building new prisons and new structures for corrections facilities. But we can channel that money, instead of building new jails and prisons, to educating the children that are in those jails and are not being served,” he adds.
Carter hopes that this rehabilitative approach to incarcerated youth can reduce the recidivism rate, which according to the 2016 State Board of Pardons and Paroles Report stands at 35 percent. The first graduate from the program came from a county jail next to Athens. He has been serving two non-concurrent sentences for the last 14 months.
Jails, usually run by local officials, are meant to hold persons accused of a crime for short terms, but Carter says that’s not always the case. “We were always told anything more than 365 days is prison and anything less is jail, but that’s not entirely true,” he explains. “You can have a student with two counts or two charges sentenced to serve ten months on one charge and twelve months on another, and that’s where students are getting lost.”
He says many schools systems were not educating these students simply because they did not know they were in the jails. Yet through partnerships with clinical behavior groups in Huntsville, Ala., Renaissance has been able to find these students and organize certified teachers to visit the jails a few times a week and work with them. Carter says sometimes the students do not have internet access in the jail cell, so teachers have to bring in a computer and back up the class information on a desktop hard drive available in the cell. In other places where the internet is available, teachers can work online with the students.
But with or without the internet, Carter insists every student needs human contact. “At first we thought, they would rather be in a virtual class than in cell bored all day, but what we have discovered is that it really takes someone being there. They still needed that one-to-one interaction, that face-to-face time to learn,” he says.
He adds that the teachers going into the jail cells want to be there, noting that their work is an extension of the school’s mission.
“At the end of the day, they are still children. They made a mistake,” Carter continues. “I spoke with a young man who just graduated, his mistake was more than a year and a half ago, and he swears up and down that he has learned from it. He now has a diploma, a 26 on the ACT, and most importantly he has an opportunity. He actually has a scholarship waiting for him after he finishes his sentence. His future is still there.”
Both Carter and Brown are hopeful about the potential of the program, but some critics charge the school with taking vital resources from the districts. They say it is unfair for virtual students to get the same funding as their peers in brick-and-mortar schools when online options should require fewer dollars and resources. In Montgomery, Alabama the superintendent launched a task force to look into potential funding, attendance and performance issues related to virtual schools.
However, Brown is not discouraged, saying he wishes the debate was not about money.
“I would love to see this virtual option everywhere, instead of it being a fight over money,” says Brown. “I am optimistic that the options will continue to be there in districts all across the nation. With anything new or innovative there are going to be those people who are for it and those who have questions.”
This story is part of an EdSurge Research series about how personalized learning is implemented in different school communities across the country. These stories are made publicly available with support from Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.