Designing Alternative Education as a Stairway Rather Than a Stepping Stone in West Burlington, Iowa

Designing Alternative Education as a Stairway Rather Than a Stepping Stone in West Burlington, Iowa

West Burlington Independent School District - West Burlington, Iowa
Vern Reed
Alternative Program Coordinator
120 students
Grades 6 to 12
EdOptions Academy
48% students eligible for free/reduced lunch
11% students with IEPs
The Challenge: 

Alternative programs, particularly credit recovery, can sometimes be subject to negative stigma from the surrounding community. Outside observers sometimes struggle to understand the vital work going on within these centers and the vast potential they have for fundamentally impacting a community.

Such was the case in West Burlington Independent School District (WBISD) in Iowa, whose Success Center was on the decline. But, with some visionary thinking; strong community partnerships, and the support of flexible, online learning options powered by Edmentum, a dedicated staff within the district was able to bring about significant change.

“Our goal is to graduate every child that we work with and then help them beyond that,” said Alternative Programs Coordinator Vern Reed.

Under Mr. Reed’s leadership, the underperforming Success Center was transformed to house all online learning in the district, not just credit recovery, through expanded use of Edmentum’s Courseware digital curriculum. The district’s program was also rebranded as the Corners, and staff worked hard to recreate it as a place where students actually want to be. The WBISD team has also built a partnership with the local Southeastern Community College (SCC), including a dedicated lab space known as The Corners Academy at SCC to provide students with access to career and technical education (CTE) courses that increase retention and prepare them for success beyond high school. Most recently, addition of the Plus One program and partnership with EdOptions Academy for virtual course options has helped West Burlington Schools serve students who previously dropped out.

When districts think about implementing an alternative credit pathway for at-risk students, the goal tends to be to help students make up missing credits. But, what if credit recovery were only a piece of a program giving students who are struggling academically and otherwise a direct ticket into college and careers? Such is the case in Iowa’s West Burlington Independent School District, where the district has paired innovative, online learning with community partnerships to support goals that go beyond graduation.
How They Did it: 

The Approach

The Corners brings together those students in WBISD in need of credit recovery with students looking for online learning for other reasons, like scheduling conflicts, learning preferences, or an opportunity to take specialized courses. Having this variety of students enrolled helps to lessen the “alternative learning” stigma the program struggled with in its previous incarnation. The mastery-based design of Courseware’s digital curriculum helps students learn at their own pace to catch up, while the extensive catalog of over 400 courses opens up new opportunities for students to explore their interests and pursue their passions.

And, once this approach took hold, the mission became more than one of credit recovery and catalog expansion. Through partnership with Southeastern Community College and creation of The Corners Academy at SCC, Mr. Reed and his team are also helping pave the way for students’ postsecondary success.

The Corners Academy at SCC offers CTE courses that start students along relevant career paths that are locally in high demand. Mr. Reed and his staff also work hard to meet the specific needs of the district’s large population of first-generation college students, many of whom come from generational poverty, and sometimes, they are still developing English-language skills. These students are often placed in developmental courses that remain uncredited when they start college, which adds to the financial burden. By leveraging Edmentum’s high-quality, online courses, The Corners Academy can make both CTE and developmental courses available to students at no charge so that they arrive at college better prepared to thrive.

Additionally, through a partnership with the statewide Iowa Works program, the new Plus One program is allowing WBISD to reach students who had given up hope on their academic careers. In the Plus One program, students who previously dropped out can enroll in virtual courses provided by Edmentum’s fully accredited virtual school, EdOptions Academy, to work toward their high school diplomas and can also be paired with a local job or apprenticeship. With attentive EdOptions Academy virtual teachers, as well as access to in-person support at The Corners Academy at SCC lab, this Iowa Works format offers personalized support and an alternative approach to help these students succeed academically. Plus, once their coursework is finished, students have already gained valuable job skills and built up their resumes with successful tenure at a real, paying job.

“Now, kids far behind for graduation are taking online classes through Courseware and EdOptions Academy to work toward their high school diplomas while physically taking college classes,” Mr. Reed explained.

Implementing Edmentum

As WBISD’s online learning program has evolved, Mr. Reed and his team have consistently identified Edmentum’s digital curriculum as more interactive, more interesting, and more strongly connected to the real world than other providers.

“We had to find a way to make this online learning relate more to my kids’ real lives,” Mr. Reed said.

With a program having as many moving parts as WBISD’s, online learning provides the flexibility to make up credits both during and outside of the school day, while it maintains cost-effectiveness. Having grown up with technology, students can easily get started and feel comfortable with the online format. The option to pair Courseware with state-certified virtual teachers through EdOptions Academy added another level of flexibility and allowed WBISD to expand its offerings beyond core credit recovery and into electives, CTE options, and alternative pathways to graduation.

“Utilizing online learning through Edmentum has helped us to graduate students with our high school diploma that simply would not have graduated,” said Mr. Reed. “Every year, we make use of [Edmentum] to recover credits and take elective credits in the process.”

Utilizing online learning through Edmentum has helped us to graduate students with our high school diploma that simply would not have graduated. Every year, we make use of [Edmentum] to recover credits and take elective credits in the process.
Vern Reed
Alternative Program Coordinator

WBISD’s revamped online learning programs are still new, but the community is already seeing results. As of fall 2018, more than 30 percent of WBISD’s students were enrolled in at least one online course through The Corners, and students taking college credits through SCC achieved a 100-percent pass rate. Additionally, the Plus One program just graduated its first student in the winter of 2018.

As it works toward even greater success, WBISD sees the demand for its unique online programs to only increase. Whether students are looking for credit recovery, career preparation, enrichment, or simply a different learning environment, their demand for flexible, personalized, and future-focused, online learning is on the rise, and through The Corners Academy at SCC and the Plus One program, West Burlington Independent School District plans to meet that demand.

Our goal is to graduate every child that we work with and then help them beyond that.
Vern Reed
Alternative Program Coordinator
The Future: 

Lessons Learned

 “There are two linchpins to [our programs’] success,” Mr. Reed shared. “One has been a willingness by staff to live by the philosophy of no matter what, we are not going to give up on a kid. This will be the one thing we do well every day. The second linchpin has been building relationships with every child. Without that, we can’t make the progress we need to make with our kids. We still fail—that’s reality—but we feel like we’ve increased the odds of a kid finding their way through this process, dramatically.”

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