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An Oasis in the Desert: Helping Every Student in Bernalillo, NM

An Oasis in the Desert: Helping Every Student in Bernalillo, NM
School Name and Location: 
Bernalillo Public Schools
The Challenge: 

"I wanted the program to have a name, to sound like a special place, an important place," said JoAnn Beuerle, Spartan Academy virtual coordinator. She was referring to Spartan Virtual Academy, a program of Bernalillo High School in Bernalillo, New Mexico. That was an important part of making the Academy a productive and welcoming place for learners who had come to be known by some as "misfits." The Academy provides online credit recovery courses to students who have struggled in a traditional learning environment. Although the program only began at the end of 2009—10 school year, it's already having a significant impact on student achievement.

How They Did it: 

Because of a variety of circumstances, JoAnn Beuerle, Spartan Virtual Academy's coordinator, was being—to use her word—"forced" to implement the use of Plato Courseware online courses for credit recovery. Beuerle was happy with the existing online courses provider that was already in place and didn't want to go through the disruption of implementing a new provider. "I really didn't want it," she said. Once Beuerle started using Plato Courseware, however, she definitely changed her mind. "The courses were so much better than what we had been using," she said. A couple of the biggest differences are that Plato Courseware is more timely and relevant and far more engaging.

The Academy prioritizes admitting students based on grade level. The first priority is "super seniors." They are older students who did not graduate with their class and have come back. The next priority is current seniors who need to recover credits to graduate. Then, if there is room—and there usually isn't—juniors. Five licenses are reserved for students for use at home for various reasons—whether it's a mom taking care of a child, or perhaps a student who is homebound for health reasons.

To help get buy-in from teachers, Beuerle aligns the courses as closely to the classroom course as possible, reviewing existing curriculum maps with instructors to identify just how the class is taught. That acceptance has risen from the teachers up through the administration, superintendent, and school board to the community.

What really validated the work of the Academy was a phone call that came unexpectedly one day from New Mexico Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera. Skandera visited Bernalillo Public Schools and made a point to visit Spartan Virtual Academy and chat with Beuerle.

Then, some weeks later, Skandera unexpectedly called Beuerle to discuss the program further and asked her for some data so that she could share the best practices of the Academy throughout the state. Skandera's message was, "keep up the good work."

One of the more gratifying experiences for the Academy and some of its students was the first summer graduation in the history of Bernalillo High School. The Academy graduated 17 students in the summer of 2010, and Beuerle was determined to have a ceremony, with caps and gowns, no less. Why not? "It only took about 20 minutes, but it was 20 minutes that was pretty important to them," said Beuerle. Also, it was also pretty important to their parents, based on the number of emails the Academy received thanking it for taking the time to celebrate the students' success.

Even though a dedicated credit recovery counselor refers students to the Academy, Beuerle's 11 years of experience in the Bernalillo Middle School helps her reach kids too. "There are times in the community that I'll see a student I recall from middle school that I know should be in high school but isn't. I tell them, 'Come see me.' I want those kids to know that they can succeed. That's why we created the Academy."

Success: 

The results at Bernalillo, even in a relatively short time, have been significant. Since the school began using Plato Courseware in 2009, 75 students have graduated, and according to Beuerle, most of those would not otherwise have. The Academy graduated 37 students at the end of the 2010—11 school year, and Bernalillo's graduation rate has increased every semester since the Academy began. A total of 264 students have taken courses through the Academy.

It may be called a virtual academy, but through a combination of dedicated educators and Plato Courseware online courses, Spartan Virtual Academy is seeing real results.

The Future: 

Spartan Virtual Academy is young, and the future is bright. There has been long-term speculation about creating a charter "school-within-a-school" that would further expand the use of Plato Courseware and would offer an even broader range of learning options for students. One thing that the Academy has shown is that offering flexible options can help more students succeed.

Whatever the future holds, for now, many juniors and seniors are getting opportunities to achieve, which they would not have otherwise. And as Beuerle says, "There is no time to fool around. I tell them that they have to be here and they have to do the work - I have a waiting list."

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