Solon district tests summer classes with a twist

Teachers taking different approach to summer school

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March 31, 2014 | 8:57 pm

School’s been out at Solon High School for almost a month, but up to 160 students can be found in the school building on any given day.

Principal Nathan Wear usually doesn’t see that many around after the end of the spring semester.

“There’s so many kids around here, it’s like we haven’t even let out school,” he said.

The extra crowd is due to a new set of eight-week hybrid classes offered by the school for extra academic credits during the summer vacation to help make up for a larger-than normal junior class.

High school grades at Solon average between 100 and 115 students, but the class of 2014 has a record 140 teens, a phenomenon Wear refers to as “the bubble.”

Increased enrollment generally is positive for Iowa school districts, as more students mean more funding. But Solon’s growth is isolated to 11th-graders, which makes long-term planning problematic.

It creates a temporary demand for core curriculum courses, which means the school needs to either hire new teachers it might not need in the future, or move current teachers from elective to core courses. Solon has tended toward the latter, which means fewer options for students to explore.

That’s where the summer semester comes in.

Electives such as Spanish V and Computer Programming were restored for a summer trial, along with some required classes such as American Government and Physical Education.

Hybrid approach

To make up for the shorter semester length and to make the courses more convenient for students and teachers to work around vacation plans, Wear requested the teachers make their classes a hybrid of in-person lectures and online independent study.

“I told them I don’t want to have kids sit in a class and get all their hours in the classroom,” he said. “They had to come up with ways to have the kids learn outside of class.”

Because the content already is computer-based, Shawn Cornally decided to completely forgo classroom lectures for Computer Programming. He delivered instruction via a series of prerecorded videos. Students are responsible for completing quizzes based on the videos, completing a class project and meeting with Cornally during optional office hours at the high school for guidance.

“The big advantage to this is every kid is getting something different according to where they are,” he said.

Cornally specifically chose a programming language for the class he did not already know. Before the start of the summer, he recorded videos of himself learning the language, so students could see the learning process firsthand.

Supplemental material

Karry Putzy also used a loose structure for her Spanish V students, consisting of a weekly three-hour class and a series of optional review sessions. She also is available during office hours to assist students.

Putzy supplements her class with digital material provided by course’s textbook publisher. Students complete lessons, exercises and quizzes online, the results of which are monitored by Putzy.

“It’s not too different, except we’re relying on them to do more activities outside of class,” she said.

Trisha Parizek’s American Government class is different from the others as it is a Solon requirement. That hasn’t hurt enrollment; 28 students are taking the class to help free up a block period during the fall.

Similar to Putzy, she teaches a weekly three-hour class and schedules review sessions as students request them. Readings and videos Parizek normally would have students read and watch in-class are now viewed online at the students’ pace.

The sole physical education class predates the formal summer program, but this is the first year students will receive credit, according to teacher Kevin Miller.

High marks

The majority of the students are doing well so far and most appreciate the summer semester’s flexibility.

Senior Erin Evans said being able to take the American Government course now is making the task of scheduling next year much easier.

“This has been such a great way for me to get a class out of the way and I’m really enjoying it,” she wrote in an email.

All three teachers report a handful of students struggling with the self-directed format who need additional attention.

“I trust the majority of my students to work hard on their own and ask questions when they’re struggling, but for a handful of them I’ve had to say ‘Your individualized plan is you’re not good at making your own individualized plan,’?” Cornally said.

The teachers said they would make more of their optional sessions mandatory next year, but not all, as the summer structure appears to be working for most.   

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