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East Ridge High School 'blended' learning classes get a close-up

An East Ridge High School program that supporters say offers a new dimension of learning but critics say departs too greatly from a traditional classroom experience got a full hearing at a recent District 833 School Board meeting.

East Ridge administrators, teachers and students shared success stories and some growing pains involved with the so-called “blended learning” program, where students split time between online learning and a traditional classroom. Similar blended offerings are also available at Woodbury and Park high schools — and in 82 other Minnesota school districts.

The presentation was given to the School Board for the first time Nov. 7, after being launched at East Ridge in spring 2012. That it never came before the board for review chafed at least one board member, Jim Gelbmann, who voiced deep concerns with blended learning.

“It’s really too late for the board to interfere,” he said. “The train has left the station.”

In blended classes, students have one day of traditional classroom learning, one day for “flex” class — where they have the option of meeting with a teacher or working independently — and three days of the “virtual classroom,” where students can spend that time as they see fit.

Blended classes at East Ridge are offered for political science, English, U.S. history and marketing.

East Ridge Assistant Principal Matt Kraft said the goal is for every student to enroll in at least one blended class before graduation, but “we’re really in the formative stages here.”

Gelbmann’s main concern was the diminished face-to-face time students get with teachers under blended learning, a claim that supporters of the program said isn’t necessarily a fair portrayal.

In fact, East Ridge High School political science teacher Gordy Denn — the first teacher at the school to launch a blended class — admitted initial concerns that less face time with students could leaded to weakened student-teacher relationships.

“It’s been the opposite of that,” he said.

Denn said the ability to provide feedback and engage students through the online portion is unmatched, while the program’s “flex” days allows students to meet with him and extend the in-person contact.

“Those flex days were really helpful for me,” said East Ridge senior Marcus London, one of four students who spoke during the workshop.

Gelbmann was the only vocal critic of blended learning on the board, though others questioned East Ridge’s administrators why there can’t be a choice between traditional and blended classes for those being offered. East Ridge Principal Aaron Harper said the suggestion is “worth exploring,” though Denn reminded board members that blended learning is also designed to give students a taste of what they’ll experience outside of high school.

“We know with college, jobs — this is the way professional development is provided today,” he said.

Other concerns raised by Gelbmann included the class hours that are offered for blended learning — first hour, fourth hour and sixth hour. He suggested that those times allow students to arrive later, take longer lunches away from school, or leave early — all of which he said is leaving critics with a new impression of the school.

“They call it Woodbury University,” Gelbmann said. “I think it’s making a statement that we’re pushing our students a little too fast.”

Students at the meeting said they are able to use those free times at their discretion by studying, participating in extracurricular activities or working part-time jobs.

The East Ridge panel admitted that not everyone thrives under the blended system — but noted that the system has a “safety net” built in.

Since some students have struggled to manage their “virtual class” time, they can be mandated by teachers to spend that time back in the traditional classroom as an intervention.

“I do have students for whom this flat-out doesn’t work,” East Ridge English teacher Adam Hayes said.

School Board Chairman Ron Kath also urged East Ridge administrators to share evaluation of the program as it continues, but echoed other board members with general support — especially of the program’s intervention opportunities between teachers and students.

“That’s what I heard loud and clear tonight,” Kath said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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