This innovative district lets students choose how to learn

One of these is a traditional approach to learning, in which students come to class each day and receive direct instruction from a teacher. “Some students and teachers still prefer this approach,” he explained.

But Taylor County also offers five alternative approaches for students who want something different. These are:

Virtual learning. Students can learn online at their own pace, typically moving through curriculum from online course provider Odysseyware. They can move at a traditional pace or work ahead and graduate early. “We’ve created a Virtual Academy in which students log into their online classes from a computer lab under the guidance of a fully certified instructor who acts as an on-site guide,” Higdon said.

This approach has proven successful for at-risk students in particular.

“The reason many students are ‘at risk’ to begin with is they have a hard time sitting at a desk for six hours a day, 176 days a year,” Higdon said. “They’re just not successful in that setting.”

But in a virtual setting, these at-risk students are able to work at their own pace; they can listen to music if they need to, or take a walk to clear their mind—and “we find that many can actually complete the required work faster,” Higdon said. “They feel like they’re in control of their own education, and they’re able to get out into the workforce quicker, which many of them want to do. This opens up the door for at-risk students in a way that most schools don’t offer.”

Project-based learning. In these classrooms, units are set up based on real-life projects. Students learn the content as they work through these projects.

“We also offer several mentorships and real-life experiences for our students through school-based enterprises,” Higdon said. “For example, in our high school, we have a student-run bank. We have a school gift shop and a culinary arts catering service run by students. We have a business called tBay, which is our version of eBay, where students sell goods online for the public—and they earn a percentage. We have a graphics design and T-shirt printing shop, an aviation course where students can earn their pilot’s license, and a greenhouse run by agricultural students.”

He added: “We teach students the content, but we also develop strategies for them to apply this knowledge within a real-world setting. And if we don’t offer a particular scenario within our district, we let students step outside our doors to find that experience within the community.”

Next page: Peer-led classrooms and self-paced learning

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