Partnering to Break Down Barriers

The district is also using a variety of partnerships to offer its own students — and others — a wider variety of learning opportunities. These offerings include intercurricular courses, project-based learning and career and technical training.

For instance, the district has partnered with Andrews University, a nearby private college, to provide district students with professor-led, college-level math and science classes. According to Bermingham, Berrien Springs also serves about 270 homeschooled students — up from just 70 in 2009 — through its partnerships with local homeschooling groups. Many of these students enroll in one of the district’s online programs.

It serves local private schools, too, by providing them with teachers for some elective courses. In return, the district receives a prorated amount of state aid on behalf of the private school students its teachers teach.[12]

Altogether, the district has partnerships with more than 20 local agencies and community-based organizations, including the Salvation Army, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Michigan Works!, Lakeland Hospital and a variety of churches, mental health care providers and poverty assistance programs.[13]

Berrien Springs is also working to develop partnerships abroad. It has initiated discussions with South Korean officials about establishing a fee-based high school in South Korea. The district would employ some teachers there, but provide most of the other support services remotely. This international academy would generate new revenue for the district and provide South Korean students an opportunity to earn an American high school diploma, greatly increasing their chances of enrolling in an American university.

Finally, the district is trying to partner with its own parents more actively through its “GOAL” initiative: Graduation Opportunities for All Learners. The idea is simple, yet revolutionary: break down grade-level distinctions, something Bermingham calls “artificial boundaries to kids progressing at the rate they should progress.”

Waggoner is blunt about organizing students by grade level. “The traditional model,” he says, “is set up to accommodate adults and to manage the movement of students, rather than accommodate children and their learning.”

GOAL would work like this: Starting in third grade, parents, teachers, counselors and administrators would collaborate to develop personalized learning plans containing specific goals for each student. Students would progress towards these goals at their own pace, moving ahead only when they demonstrate mastery of the subject material. The plan would be reviewed annually or more often, if necessary.

With the GOAL program, students wouldn’t have to wait until ninth grade, for example, to start taking high school material. They wouldn’t have to wait to graduate high school to take college material. In fact, students could earn an associate degree — about two years’ worth of college credits — by the time they graduate from the Berrien Springs school system.

Students could graduate early, too. Alternatively, they could slow down their learning pace. No longer would students be rushed to keep up with the rest of their peers. If they needed additional time to master certain material, they could take it.

Digital learning is critical to the GOAL program. The scheduling flexibility and wide array of courses that virtual coursework make possible are essential to individualizing learning on a large scale. The basic idea, however, is anything but futuristic. As Principal Pesce points out regarding the district, “It’s a one-room schoolhouse in a very large setting.”

Students progress at their own pace. No two students are the same, and digital learning tools allow them to work when, where and how they learn best. - click to enlarge