Stokes County’s alternative high school, Meadowbrook Academy, is garnering state attention for its successes in using small class sizes and digital learning to change the lives of struggling high school students.
Last week Gov. Pat McCrory’s Senior Education Advisor, Catherine Truitt, visited the school to learn how Principal David Hicks and his staff are using one-to-one digital learning to lead students struggling with grades and real world issues down a path of educational achievement.
The school offers students a chance to learn at their own pace with lots of individual instruction from a dedicated staff of teachers.
The school offers classes for both middle and high schools students, 90 percent of which are on free or reduced lunches. Three percent of the students are homeless, 12 percent are dealing with teen pregnancies, and 30 percent are classified as EC students.
Hicks said the school provides a safe environment for students to find a clear path to success.
“We use a lot of tough love,” he said. “We are pulling kids back form the brink. These kids have a lot more problems outside of the school than they do inside the school. We have our own little pantry here and we all buy extra stuff at the grocery store so we can send kids home with backpacks of food every Friday.”
The school boasts an 86 percent success rate, measured by students either graduating or turning their academic career around to a point at which they can return to their regular high school, and a 56 percent graduation rate.
Today there is a waiting list to get accepted to the school, with many graduates continuing on to community colleges or four-year universities.
But Hicks said getting to the current success rates was a long, multi-year process.
“The first year we concentrated on getting the school back into order,” he said noting that in 2011 the school only had an 11 percent graduation rate and a 29 percent success rate. “We focused on attendance, attitude and academics. I promise the students that if they come to school we will guarantee they will learn.”
In 2012 the school got priority school funding from the federal government, enabling them to invest in a digital learning environment. Hicks purchased Thinkpads and Chromebooks for the students and contracted with digital learning platforms like Apex Learning and Odysseyware.
“They came in and did extensive training,” said Hicks. “We said lets see if we can make it work. We started with just a few classes and the graduation rate went up and the success rate went up, so in the third year we added more online resources.
“Every course we had was now available online,” he said. “Our success rate went up to 78 percent and our graduation rate went up to 46 percent. In the fourth year we added an after-school tutoring program and added a way for the students, teachers, and parents to communicate more through the computer programs.”
Hicks attributes the dramatic turnaround to both a dedicated staff who bought into the idea of computer-based learning, and to the benefits that that unique form of learning can offer the students.
“If a digital environment can do this for an alternative school then what can it do for everyone else?” he asked.
He said the transition offered its own difficulties, especially for teachers who serve more as learning facilitators now, but said the end result was teachers had more time to work with the students individually on specific issues they were having with course work.
“The teachers spend less time doing prep work, but they still have to have all of the knowledge, they are just not tied to doing lesson plans,” said Hicks.
Eliminating the need for constant lesson planning frees up more time for professional development.
“My teachers are getting hours and hours of professional development through a program called Simple K-12,” said Hicks. “Last year my teachers each got over 30 hours of professional development.”
The digital learning environment also provides almost immediate data on student success and comprehension, enabling Hicks and his staff to identify where each student is having difficulty.
“I get a lot of data and I use it,” said Hicks. “I know where every student is at all the time.”
By allowing each student to work through their coursework online, at their own pace, the digital learning environment puts more of the responsibility of success on the students.
“They realize that they have to actually do it and no one can do it but them,” said one teacher at the school. “It is right there in front of them and success is based on their own motivation. We are teaching them how to find answers, not just memorize it.”
Truitt said that is why the state is getting more and more interested in seeing how digital learning is being successful in schools across the state.
“You can’t fake this kind of learning,” she said. “The kid hits submit and the teacher can see everything the kid is doing. It is a completely different way of learning.”
And it is a way of learning that is working, both on paper and in the minds of the students at Meadowbrook Academy.
“I had never passed out of any subject as fast as I have since I have been at this school,” said senior Micheal Turner. “Sometimes when the teacher would be teaching it just would not click in my head. At Meadowbrook I have a class where there are not as many people and you can get as much attention as you need. You can go at your own pace and that really works for more. the computer tells you what to do, how to do it, different ways of doing it and it shows you each way step by step.”
Turner, who attended South Stokes High School before moving to Meadowbrook, said his grades have never been as high as they are since moving.
“All of this really helps it click in my head,” he said. “It helps me get and obtain information. I had heard about Meadowbrook but I thought it was just a school for bad people. My principle told me I would really like it because of how small the classrooms are and how helpful the teachers are and he was right. This is the perfect school for anybody and everybody. I do miss basketball, but my education is more important. I can get all the information I need here and pursue my welding career.”
Ashley Rorrar, a freshman, agreed.
“It is much better than a bigger school,” she said. “It is a lot different, but I like working on the computer better.”
She said the structure at the school removed a lot of the time pressure found at other schools, allowing for more one-on-one instruction.
“Here I can take my time and do what I need to do to make good grades,” she said. “If I can’t do that, then they will help me along.”
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.