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Six steps for a successful online summer school

The right online learning program can help students recover credits and expand learning.

Remediate or retain? Surprisingly, this is still a valid question for some principals and districts, despite the body of research against retention (1) and the fact that Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) is used widely to gauge the success of any given district. Studies and opinions aside, for some students, the education process requires more than the allotted time frame of 180 days, or eight and a half months. Educators need other options.

Luckily for learners and learning leaders alike, available options are affordable and flexible enough to enable successful interventions for many kinds of learners and many different learning goals. One such option is online learning.

Online learning is uniquely poised to address a wide array of intervention strategies within the three main areas of focus for intervention programs: diagnostic practices, targeted interventions with adult advocates and academic support, and school-wide interventions that include personalizing the learning environment (2). It can be an effective, affordable means of getting lagging learners back on track with their classmates in the four- to six-week space of a summer program. There are six steps district learning leaders can follow to create a successful summer program using 21st century solutions to meet their challenges.

Setting the stage

Before addressing the six steps to summer school program implementation, a district must secure approval and funding, as well as buy-in from key players.

Securing approval and funding occurs concurrently. Summer program planners must secure state approval, if applicable. They must determine what the process is and what the state requirements are for online programs, ensure the state is willing to use the chosen program materials, and make sure to factor in time for what could be a lengthy process. The district must secure local approval, which often is a simple process that can occur at a board meeting.

When determining the funding source or sources for the program, a district must be certain the funding source is compatible with its program model. For instance, planners must ensure online virtual summer school is an acceptable item if they plan to use a blended funding model.

Once approval and funding have been secured, district-wide principal and guidance counselor support paves the way to an easy implementation.

Putting the six steps into play

Step one: Determine program scope

District and school leaders can choose K–12 digital curricula in all content areas and many electives, but educators who are new to online programs should focus on their most pressing needs and grow from there. Language arts and math for the middle grades are must-haves; program leaders can expect 50 percent of their district enrollments in this area. Students also may need science and social studies coursework.

High school must-haves will vary among states and districts. Because it meets our requirements for academic rigor, flexibility, student engagement, management, and professional learning so well, Hamilton County Virtual School (HCVS), has implemented CompassLearning Odyssey. The most popular offerings at HCVS have been:

  • Odyssey English, grades 9–11
  • Odyssey Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II
  • Odyssey Government
  • Odyssey Physical Science

In general, a virtual summer school program requires only one teacher per content area across all middle grade levels. By assigning one teacher to multiple levels, an online summer school can meet students’ diverse needs while maintaining a limited program scope. Because the program — not the teachers — generates content, teachers facilitate rather than deliver the online learning. Although a single well-organized and tech-savvy teacher can facilitate more than one course, districts new to online summer programs should employ enough instructors for adequate course coverage. This ensures the online summer school experience is not frustrating, confusing, or overwhelming for teachers involved. Additionally, a district can avoid significantly expanding staffing and training needs using such a program.

Step two: Choose courseware

Many local education agencies require districts to issue a request for proposal (RFP) for any kind of courseware subscription or purchase. Because their choice will be locked in once they submit the proposal, district leaders must devote careful consideration to the learning experience they wish to provide. The proposed choice should offer the flexibility, content, and interface required for a sustainable credit-recovery summer school program.

Focus on needs and standards

AYP results and state- and district-level testing data can help decision makers choose where to focus limited resources and how to make best use of time in the short summer-school session. District leaders can use survey tools such as Google Forms to gather information from principals and guidance counselors about areas of need in individual buildings. And, to some extent, the curricula and support provided by the courseware company can provide a structure within which districts can make informed decisions about content offerings.
Districts also need to ascertain the content’s alignment to state standards and benchmarks, and to be prepared to address any gaps using teacher-generated or other content. Increasingly, there are fewer gaps as states move to common core standards and software companies strive to align to those standards.

Offer rigorous, relevant, differentiated learning

The best-case scenario for credit recovery learners includes a diagnostic-prescriptive option, allowing learners to test out of material already mastered. Decision points, lock-outs, and gating mechanisms further ensure that learners will not simply fail a lesson or unit and move on. Decision points route the learner back through failed content and then, if a second time through the content does not lead to mastery, lock the learner out of the course until the instructor is contacted. Gating requires a learner to complete all assigned content or meet other expectations before continuing.

Learning object repositories (LOR) often include these features, and, as the district becomes accustomed to online programs, LORs can generate learning paths to meet very specific individual learning goals. LORs also ensure maximum alignment to state standards within any given course. Using an LOR rather than buying a pre-packaged or out-of-the-box course requires training for online teachers, but the benefits include a deeper knowledge of the curriculum and greater educator buy-in to the program.

Make it engaging and easy

Regardless of the scope of content offerings, real learning occurs when learners find the material engaging and relevant. The desire to avoid retention will bring the horse to the water, as the saying goes, but students must drink deeply of their studies in order to be successful in summer school — and the following school year. An interactive learning experience can maintain students’ attention and enthusiasm at any time of year.

Presenting engaging, interactive, interesting content is half the battle. However, if students cannot easily navigate to those engaging activities, they won’t be able to start learning. The learning management system (LMS) — the platform upon which the content is served up to learners — should help, not hinder, the learning experience. Students must be able to navigate the program interface successfully after a short orientation or tutorial.

When it comes to user experience, simplicity can be essential. Look for a platform that credit-recovery learners can navigate with ease and that can provide additional functionality as the district and its learners become more sophisticated about online learning.

Step three: Teacher team

Two myths characterized the infancy of online learning initiatives. The first was that online learning was impersonal and isolating. The second was that virtual classes would eliminate the need for a teacher. Overwhelmingly, qualitative and quantitative data affirm the opposite (3). Online learning can be a great deal more personal and interactive than face-to-face classes, and the online school teacher is as important as ever. However, the teacher’s role does change in an online environment.

The online teacher: a 21st century role

Unburdened from the need to deliver content, the online teacher is a coach who stands ready to offer guidance, answer questions, motivate, encourage, and document these interactions with students and parents in a communication log. The online environment affords access to excellent tools — many of them free — that facilitate a variety of student–teacher and teacher–teacher interaction. A teacher’s communication log and information from the content management system also provide transparency, so educators can rapidly identify when students require intervention and support. Thus, it is important to hire teachers with good communication skills, train them adequately, and support them fully.

Because the first time through a virtual course is difficult for an online teacher — learning a new role, experiencing the ins and outs of the course, and navigating a new learning management system — his or her comfortable relationship with multiple technologies is a must. Leaders should consider requiring an electronic application and using Skype for the initial interview to test new applicants’ technological proficiency. That being said, familiarity with specific tools is less important than a prospect’s attitude toward leaving her comfort zone. Many teachers who come to online learning expecting they will have less to do will soon be overwhelmed by the demands of online courses and students.

Specialized roles

Summer school planners should identify and train a Lead Teacher to add an extra layer of support and oversight for the online program. Because the Lead Teacher is a super-user of the courseware to support, rather than supervise, the teacher team, she should have early access to the content of the courses and additional training. Though the role is not that of a direct supervisor, the Lead Teacher should develop a rubric for all the teachers that clearly defines weekly/monthly expectations (checkpoints) and assesses teachers on an ongoing basis. Checkpoint recommendations include: the minimum number of office hours that the teacher is immediately available by phone, eMail, or other means; logging in six out of seven days; issuing progress reports per a defined schedule; and contacting students weekly and parents monthly. This data is not intended to be used to criticize teacher performance, but rather to indicate where they need additional support.

In the early stages of an online program’s development, it is best if the Lead Teacher does not also serve as the Program Coordinator, whose role involves accurately and intelligently responding to inquiries about a student’s short-term and long-term performance. Since this is only possible if teachers record accurate and up-to-date information in their logs, the importance of documentation cannot be overstated.

Step four: Enrollment

Districts may consider purchasing a full-featured student information system (SIS) for virtual enrollments. An SIS allows a district to capture all enrollment data and send eMail confirmations to enrollees with links to online orientations, the course login, and teacher information. An SIS also has reporting features and facilitates the Lead Teacher’s monitoring of teacher performance.

Districts also can choose other database options for their programs. Many databases, including Google Docs or private wikis, cost little to no money. Additionally, virtual initiatives might be able to use a district’s existing SIS, although these programs may not be configured to the needs of online enrollments. Regardless of the system used, online education program planners must ensure development of an enrollment application, consider enlisting a guidance counselor or principal’s approval, and disseminate information about the enrollment software to individual schools in the district.

District-level leaders will need to make decisions regarding pricing and possible sources of funding for the summer program. A tuition model should include a credit card or PayPal option to ease the financial burden for parents. Guidance counselors also can act as Onsite Facilitators (OFs) to enroll students and collect applicable fees at in-person enrollment sessions.

Step five: Location

Districts can make school computer labs available for student use during the summer program with Lab Facilitators (LFs) to support online students. Many parents prefer the structured, supported environment of a lab setting and will happily transport students to the schools where labs are offered. If attendance in the labs is mandatory, the district may need to provide transportation, which will add costs to the overall program.

Community centers, recreation centers, and libraries can be good partners for summer virtual programs. Some students may be happier and more successful at home, but educators should set the expectation for these students that online summer school courses are rigorous and require a minimum of 10 hours per week to complete successfully. Planners should provide at least one facilitated location for proctored final exams, which are an absolute must to ensure the integrity of your online program.

Step six: Professional development

Securing a successful outcome for a virtual summer initiative begins with adequate preparation of teachers, OFs, and LFs. Teachers need instruction in the navigation and use of content and the content management system, virtual system policies (such as academic integrity policy, proctored final exam policy, district grading policy, and state testing policy), documentation, and use of the enrollment database. OFs need to know how to register students in the database, and LFs need a working knowledge of the courseware platform in order to assist learners in the lab setting.

Other considerations include determining policies and procedures and communicating them to all stakeholders; making provisions for state mandated exams, if applicable; providing for student/parent orientation in-person, online, or both; providing technical assistance to students working at home and in labs; and establishing a procedure for timely reporting of summer grades to school counselors ahead of the fall semester.

Summer programs give students the opportunity to recover not only credit, but also learning. The benefits of a virtual summer school implementation — and the lower price tag when compared to traditional summer school models — make online learning an attractive option for resource-challenged districts. With mindful planning and a clear focus, virtual summer school can be easy and effective.


1. Bowman, L.; Grade Retention: Is It a Help or Hindrance to Student Academic Success? Preventing School Failure; vol. 49, no. 2; Spring 2005; pp. 42–46; ERIC# EJ744733. See also Stump, C., Ph.D., Repeating a grade: The pros and cons. http://www.greatschools. org/special-education/health/
2. Dynarski, M., Clarke, L., Cobb, B., Finn, J., Rumberger, R., and Smink, J.; Dropout Prevention, Washington DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute for Education Sciences; U.S. Department of Education (NCEE 2008- 4025); September 2008; 66 pages.
3. Watson, J. and Gemin, B.; Promising Practices in Online Learning: Socialization in Online Learning. Virginia: North American Council for Online Learning (iNACOL); September 2008; 19 pages.

Debi Crabtree is the virtual school coordinator for the Hamilton County School district, the fourth largest school district in Tennessee. She also teaches technology courses at Tennessee Technological University and serves as an independent consultant to companies and schools that are implementing new e-learning initiatives.

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