This case shows how digital technology allows you to be much more flexible in order to efficiently serve diverse needs. Other important insights from the Catoosa Online Academy are the importance content knowledge, leadership support for technology use, aligning the technology use with organizational mission, and of being familiar with the technology before rolling it out customers. COA is essentially a textbook example of an organization using technology to automate a process—delivery of curriculum content for credit recovery—and then building on that to differentiate. COA enabled Catoosa County School to keep high school students on track by using the technology to support relationships rather than just deliver information.
Technology for Learning… Anywhere… Anytime
The Catoosa Online Academy (COA) provides rigorous high school curriculum for students. Digital technology helps COA to be flexible, meet the needs for diverse learners, provide individualized support, and help students remain engaged in their local schools.
Legislative imperative becomes educational innovation opportunity
COA began after the Georgia legislature passed two bills in 2012 (SB289 & HB175) requiring schools to provide the opportunity for students to have access to online learning at no cost to the student.
Catoosa County was already using an online learning system for a variety of needs. Some teachers were using the system for blended learning (supplementing classroom learning with online learning) in their classes. Leaders within the school system realized they could easily make the system available to other students. Steve Sawyer, Director of Technology, felt it could be an avenue for providing a high quality program to serve students tailored to their abilities. His motto for the process was, “Imagine the possibilities… No Walls…No Limits.”
Buy-in and Experience Overcome Challenges
The initial challenge was to assure that the COA curriculum was rigorous and met all of Georgia’s high school educational standards. Teachers certified in each subject carefully reviewed the classes and tests. Teachers who were already familiar with the system, Apex Learning Virtual School (http://www.apexlearningvs.com/courses/for-schools), verified that the curriculum was valid, reliable and rigorous, and included the components necessary for students to be successful.
Buy-in and support was a key aspect of the development of the COA. From the beginning the Catoosa County leadership, particularly the Superintendent, Mrs. Denia Reese, the Board of Education, and the directors supported the academy. Everyone realized it was important to keep as many students as possible in their own high school. Because of the flexibility that COA provides, this school became a critical resource for achieving the county’s value promise: “Every child, every day, without exception.”
COA launched with 40 students in the fall of 2013. In its third year, COA has an enrollment of 200, and has a full time principal and teachers. Rapid growth was also a challenge. “It happened very fast,” said COA’s principal Dr. Kyra Rhyne, because people were excited about the idea.
COA continues to meet the diverse needs of many students. Examples include school athletes who have demanding practice schedules, and students with medical and other conditions that make it difficult to attend school. It also allows students the freedom to learn at their own pace. Students with challenging life situations find the COA an alternative to being in the traditional school setting. The COA also implemented innovative, high-impact teaching approaches that have been found to be successful in meeting individual student needs.
Everything Students Need to Succeed
One challenge the COA faces is student motivation. Students often want to postpone their schoolwork until the end of the semester. The COA faculty stays in close contact with students and their parents to make sure they stay on track. COA has a lab where students can receive help from teachers and also take tests. COA worked with the Ringgold Telephone Company to make sure students have internet access, and COA can loan out inexpensive laptops to students who really need computers. In other words, COA provides everything that students need to succeed while learning independently. It is “high touch” as well as “high tech”!
COA continually refines its program in order to prepare to offer programs that meet students’ needs. The COA is now serving middle school students in certain situations. The middle schoolers in Catoosa County are already proficient in the use of technology, so COA is considering ways to support and help them.
Important lessons learned by the Catoosa Online Academy include: preparing for rapid growth, capitalizing on resources you already have, and understanding your software platform internally before rolling it out. Clear objectives and value proposition are critical, as is leadership buy-in and support. In Catoosa County, leaders realized that a local virtual school could meet many students’ needs and keep them in their local schools. And, based on their prior experience with Apex Learning, they found they had programs in place to open a virtual school relatively easily. Possibly most importantly, everyone has come to understand that the technology doesn’t replace relationships. Rather, it must be used to enhance relationships. Dr. Rhyne noted that, “We are always at looking at ways to strengthen relationships.”