The 3 Fs That Don’t Equal Failure

By Darlene Wilgus | May, 07 2021, 07:30 PM PT

The past year has bent a traditional education system to the point of no return. So when I hear school leadership posturing around the idea of returning to a normal fall of 2021 start, I am mystified. Does that mean no social distancing, masks required, or attestation? On the other hand, savvy leaders are planning for personalized learning options. They can see that a percentage of their students and families will not be ready for a normal start.

There are 3 Fs that should be at the forefront of all fall planning: forward-thinking, flexibility, and formative practices. I believe these practices will help your program exceed “normal.”

Forward Thinking

Planning for a robust K-12 virtual learning option for fall and beyond just makes sense. Although all things pandemic accelerated the need, on-demand options have been gaining viability each year for the past 20 years. Many districts are planning to have an online program and/or hybrid program as an integrated service model. Districts that don’t incorporate options into their system, face loss of FTE to virtual schools outside of their geographic area.

 Reaching out to established programs in your region for support is a great way to get started or expand on what is in place. Many districts are hitting the rewind button to separate what worked this past year from online experiences that didn’t produce the desired results. The largest growth area in virtual programs during the 20-21 school year was at the K-5 grade band. Many successful secondary programs are now planning for a K-5 compliment in the 21-22 school year.

How might you approach adding to an existing/established program in a developmentally appropriate way for younger students and has the parent far more involved in the educational plan?


Facility Space

Don’t try to cram the program into a traditional box or room. The tendency, like a gravitational pull, draws us back towards a uniform institutional model. If the digital learning lab is constructed with rows and seats so that students can be monitored easily via Hapara or whatever monitoring software is employed, that doesn’t look like flex.

Designing a space that meets student needs is at the heart of planning. Think about your existing media center. Can small group work be accomplished? Are there comfortable seating options besides a straight-back chair? Where do you like to sit when you go to the local coffee shop? Can students opt to reorganize furniture or sit on the floor?

Help your support staff and teachers to catch this vision.

Course/Content Delivery

All content doesn’t need to be given at one time. Though it may need to be put on the student’s schedule or state-required content, there are many ways and time frames that can be fluid. Systems can be configured with the savvy help of a registrar that believes in giving students learning options.

Continuous enrollment flows in multiple directions within and across the district’s calendar as well as semester start and ending dates. Truly setting up parameters is about looking at students’ learning styles and personalizing the “due dates” to their needs. This is also true for bell schedules. Students working online are far more able to work a schedule that meets their needs. Changing gears every 55 minutes works for some, but many of the successful online learning students I’ve known have worked on 2-3 courses and done so from 8 pm to 2 am routinely. When they finish a course or two they are ready to focus on the next in sequence.

How would you align your teaching and support staff to meet these students and their learning needs?

Formative Practices

Student Voice

Hearing from students on a regular basis should be part of our virtual learning option program expectation and goal setting. This is a critical component of student learning engagement. Students need to have a voice in how we deliver content to them.

For the first time in educational history, we can deliver standards via a project-based, hands-on approach, reading central, or video delivery. Three students all taking eighth-grade math can have it delivered in a way that moves them towards mastery vs. all taking the course paced to the calendar. The report metrics are widely available on platforms. Students and their mentors/advisors should know where they are with academic progress and where they are headed next.

Academic Integrity

Anyone can pull a standardized assessment from a course and have it delivered and computer-scored. Chances are students will google the answer, cut and paste their response. Because much of the content sits in the platform, teachers can craft assessments of the materials that require students to use critical thinking skills vs. critical guessing.

The quality of your online program is anchored in how well teachers facilitate learning and personalize courses to meet students where they are. When students know they are individually having their learning needs met, they care more about integrity.

Adjustments in Real-Time

Because our finger is on the pulse of the virtual online program, we take regular feedback, share results, and make adjustments. As a long-time educator, I recall the days of taking the customary end-of-year survey to get feedback from my students about their experience with me. Then I became really progressive and went to a twice-a-year assessment.

With all the tools at hand today, why wait?

Creating a mentality on the team and the students of assessment that informs practice should be our mantra and set us apart as responsive and relational.

What do your current program assessments reveal? Are they transparently shared?

Normal just isn’t enough for me when I know we can exceed expectations. I’ll encourage you to champion these 3 Fs. I guarantee individually or collectively they will move your program forward.

Up Next: From Disconnect to Reconnect

Meet the Writer

Darlene has 35+ years of experience in education spanning teaching and leading private and public schools K-12. She has also served as an adjunct professor in both education and university administrative programs for George Fox, Seattle Pacific, and Heritage. Her passions lie in student-centered practices, program development, and best practices approaches for teachers to employ. Her undergrad work was at Northwest Nazarene University, MED in School Administration from Central Washington University, and her Superintendent’s license was earned through the Executive Leadership program at Seattle Pacific University.

During her tenure in alternative learning the past 14 years, she became an NBCT, led a 10 member cohort with 80% certification in year one, and facilitated two district-level program cohorts. Her focus for the past seven years became a lightning rod for today’s educational paradigm: developing and implementing a successful district online learning program.