The Learning Accelerator Blog/Flexibility in the Face of Volatility: Three Shifts for Managing Enrollment Fluctuations in District-based Virtual Schools

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Flexibility in the Face of Volatility: Three Shifts for Managing Enrollment Fluctuations in District-based Virtual Schools

by Rashida Kimbrue Major & Nate Kellogg on June 28 2022

In response to pandemic-induced school closures, virtual schools across the country saw enrollment rates skyrocket. At Highline Public Schools’ Highline Virtual Academy in Washington state, for example, enrollment increased from 200 students in grades 6-12 to over 600 in just two weeks during September 2021 – a substantial three-fold increase. As brick-and-mortar schools have reopened, however, many of these students have since returned to in-person schools. But the ongoing pandemic and newfound awareness that virtual schooling does work well for some percentage of students continue to create planning and staffing headaches for districts as their virtual programs experience volatile enrollment trends. As districts plan for the 2022-23 school year, leaders can prepare for ongoing fluctuating enrollment in their virtual schools by thinking differently about communication with families, staffing structures and professional development, and data-informed instruction.

Families: Communicate expectations and offer support through flexible onboarding and virtual family communities.

When students are learning at home, the role of parents and caregivers is often elevated, requiring virtual schools to double-down on communication with families. With students enrolling mid-year and family onboarding happening primarily at the beginning of the year, schools are consistently challenged to share virtual program expectations. In turn, families may not fully understand their vital role in their child’s academic success in the virtual space.

Creating ongoing opportunities for family onboarding – such as offering asynchronous virtual courses, establishing a family contract to clarify expectations, hosting family-led onboarding sessions, providing on-demand tech support, and making welcome calls – will ensure families joining mid-year can swiftly set their child up for success. Other districts are communicating in families’ languages of choice and creating a community amongst virtual families through virtual family meet-ups and private online groups, providing caregivers with networks to connect with other families to find support and share resources.

Staffing: Build flexible, responsive staffing structures and professional development systems.

Districts have experienced new staffing challenges as students transitioned from their brick-and-mortar campuses to a virtual school in their same district. Decreasing enrollment in brick-and-mortar schools requires schools to downsize, while increases in class sizes in virtual schools create a sudden demand for virtual teachers. On the flip side, families who find that the traditional model worked best for their kids are returning to brick-and-mortar schools. At KIPP DC in Washington, D.C., for example, a drastic increase in student enrollment in their virtual program required leaders to add 26 teachers to their initial staff roster of just eight within two months of launching the school year.

Flexible staffing structures can support teachers moving from their traditional school to teach at an online campus – even part-time in some cases, as students may return to their brick-and-mortar school. Providing on-demand, personalized professional development will support teachers as they transition mid-year to a virtual environment; to meet this need, Colorado Springs School District 11’s offers teacher-led PD days. While there is overlap in teaching in the remote environment and an in-person setting, districts understand that the demand and modality are different and are supporting and training staff accordingly. Experts recommend weeks – preferably months – of in-depth training and preparation before launching a virtual learning program.

During the remote learning period, districts often did not benefit from a lengthy runway for appropriate professional development, and some districts leveraged the standard summer training to work differently and to prepare for the distance-learning environment. Shelby County Public Schools in Tennessee altered their summer professional development offerings for teachers to experience a remote learning environment similar to the virtual instruction they would soon provide their students. Districts like West Warwick Public Schools in Rhode Island offered over 80 virtual training sessions during spring break to familiarize teachers with virtual learning tools and platforms like Flipgrid and Google Classroom, while staff development coaches assisted struggling teachers through a virtual help desk. All in all, districts provided teachers with some distinct time to learn and transform their approach from the traditional to virtual environment.

Instruction: Meet kids where they are through data-informed, flexible, and responsive instruction.

As students transition to and from virtual schools, creating opportunities for differentiated, responsive instruction will be key to meeting students' needs. Differentiation requires teachers to access and leverage a variety of student data to adjust whole-group instruction, strategically group students, and create individual learner pathways. Designing remote pathways can be especially beneficial for providing student choice and creating an environment for peer support. Self-paced lessons can allow students to move at their own speed, while also allowing teachers to provide intervention and targeted support to students.

Across campuses, teachers can help students take ownership of their data, share data with stakeholders (and across schools), and use available data (e.g., formative assessments, attendance) to match students to the available academic supports and enrichment opportunities. Districts leveraging a shared base curriculum can differentiate for students who flip between remote and in-person learning more easily, as well, as materials and scope and sequences will align across schools.

As the pandemic lingers on, school districts with virtual schools are planning for unpredictable enrollment for the coming year – a dynamic challenge that requires flexible solutions. Resilient districts can deliver on their promise of offering robust virtual learning models by meeting staff, students, and families where they are, communicating expectations clearly and creatively, building responsive staffing structures and supports, and leveraging individualized, flexible teaching practices.

About the Author

Rashida Kimbrue Major is an Associate Partner, Programs at The Learning Accelerator and is dedicated to engaging school and systems leaders on reflective practices that allow for responsive and equitable education in schools.

Nate Kellogg is a Partner at The Learning Accelerator. With a decade of experience in schools, Nate leverages his expertise with educational technology and innovation to support school- and systems-level change.