This innovative district lets students choose how to learn

A district offers students 6 instructional models—an approach that has led to zero dropouts

choose-learningTo hear Taylor County Schools Assistant Superintendent Charles Higdon tell it, students shouldn’t be allowed to drop out of school—at least not without a fight.

“We have implemented a ‘zero dropout’ policy that does not allow students to drop out of our district,” he said. But rather than imprisoning students in front-facing classrooms, the rural Kentucky district is instead trying to entice at-risk, and even low-risk, students to enjoy their education through a series of innovative and distinct learning pathways–informally called “spokes.”

Students in Taylor County can actually choose how they want to learn from among six instructional models, including traditional, online, peer-led, and project-based learning. This highly student-centered approach has resulted in a 100-percent graduation rate within the district over the last few years, say administrators.

“We build a team around each child in the district, and we find out what their goals are—and the team helps guide them there,” Higdon said.

During the National School Boards Association’s annual conference last month, Higdon and Superintendent Roger Cook—whose vision is behind the district’s innovative approach—described how Taylor County gives students a wide choice in how they want to learn.

“Instead of saying, ‘This is how our district is going to be,’ we actually allow multiple approaches,” Higdon said in an interview.

Next page: How the district juggles PBL, online learning, and more

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

Peer-led classrooms. In these classrooms, the teacher is a facilitator, and the students act as instructors. Students who have mastered the content first help other students learn the content. “Some students learn better from their peers than from a teacher,” Higdon explained.

Taylor County also has a program called STARS, which stands for Students Teaching and Reaching Students. Students can apply to become a STARS mentor, and about 250 students have done this.

“These STARS students are placed with an elementary teacher and act as an instructor under the official certified teacher,” he said. “Approximately 40 per period are bused to our elementary and middle schools, and some of those have decided they want to become teachers some day—so it’s perfect training for them, but it also gives another set of eyes and hands to the elementary teachers.”

Self-paced classrooms. Here, teachers record their lessons, and students are able to watch these videos either during school or outside of school, as often as they need to learn the material. “The teacher facilitates and works out problems during the class time with students,” Higdon said.

Cardinal Academy. In this new program, launched just this year, students develop their own learning plan and schedule under the guidance of an academic adviser. They decide for themselves what subjects they will work on, when, and for how long. They can also learn off campus through internships if they want.

“The students are in control of what they do each day,” Higdon said. “There is a rigorous application process they need to go through to participate, and they have to be considered ‘proficient’ or ‘distinguished’ under the state’s accountability system to apply. The students love this approach, because they feel empowered.”

Enabling Taylor County’s unique approach is a one-to-one computing program in which all students in grades three and up have access to iPads or Lenovo laptops. But giving students a choice in how they will learn poses some logistical challenges for the district.

“We’ve been doing this for six years now,” Higdon said of his personalized approach. “When we first started in year one, it wasn’t as smooth a system throughout the district as it is now. We had a lot more challenges at the beginning then we do now.”

Taylor County administrators and guidance counselors collaborate with support staff to develop a master schedule.

“We take the students’ needs and preferences into consideration when we build the plan, and then we create a master schedule around these,” he said. “The process has evolved over the last few years, and everyone now accepts it.”

The former Editor in Chief of eSchool News, Dennis Pierce is now a freelance writer covering education and technology. He has been following the ed-tech space for more than 17 years. Dennis can be reached at

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