The Learning Accelerator Blog/Learning Alongside Others Sparks Plymouth-Canton’s Virtual Redesign

innovation school design virtual & hybrid learning deploying and developing experts

Learning Alongside Others Sparks Plymouth-Canton’s Virtual Redesign

by Nate Kellogg on June 20 2023

Pelukas Pull Quote

Amanda Pelukas joined Plymouth-Canton Community Schools (P-CCS) in Michigan to transform P-CCS’ Virtual Academy. “COVID remote learning,” as Pelukas described it, needed to improve. Instead of solving the problem on their own, Pelukas and her team joined a network of peers facing similar challenges called Strategy Lab. Months later, Pelukas and the P-CCS virtual team were huddled around tables in a small classroom in Dallas, Texas, hatching plans to completely rethink their virtual program; by not having to learn alone, Pelukas had an “aha” moment.

A Need for Collective Learning

P-CCS’ Virtual Academy began as an extension of their “COVID remote” option. “It was chaos,” Pelukas recalls, “there wasn't really any cohesiveness to what it was that we did.” The district was losing hundreds of students to alternative options, with leaders hearing feedback that the academy was not a virtual program but rather a remote option with no flexibility. “We knew we wanted to make changes, and that's where [TLA’s Strategy Lab] came in,” she said.

As a networked learning experience, Strategy Lab uses an inclusive, rapid design process (following TLA’s Real-Time Redesign toolkit) in a collaborative cohort model. Twenty school system teams are exploring and demonstrating how schools can use virtual and hybrid approaches to drive equity in experience and achievement, including P-CCS. Initial needs assessments revealed common challenges and opportunities across the cohort. Teams narrowed on a problem of practice; for P-CCS, this was about creating more flexibility. A cornerstone of the design process is seeking out and including the perspectives of stakeholders. For some school system teams, this was a helpful reminder to deeply understand their families’ needs. Pelukas shared, “We didn't have any stakeholder input… TLA really pushed the empathy interviews and the stakeholder feedback.”

Inspiration in Dallas

In November 2022, the P-CCS team traveled to Dallas, Texas, to attend TLA’s All-Cohort Convening. The three-day experience brought together nearly 100 participants, including Strategy Lab members and experts. Teams visited Personalized Learning schools in Dallas Independent School District and engaged in collaborative learning sessions across high-interest topics, from engagement strategies to learner-centered scheduling to digital equity. The P-CCS team said they saw the Dallas convening as a key opportunity to learn and be inspired as they redesigned their program, leading them to bring six team members – more than any other team in the cohort – who assumed that they would design a fully asynchronous program, where students work independently without any live classes.

At the convening, however, Pelukas and her colleagues noticed a trend: hybrid learning, which balances in-person and virtual learning, was the nearly universal learning model among attendees. “From the panel speakers to the individual breakout groups, everyone was doing something different, and it was across the nation, but one element that seemed to be the same is everybody had some type of hybrid,” Pelukas said. “I was not a fan of hybrid because I just didn't think that it would make sense for us, and then the more I listened to other people talk, it seemed like maybe we had an idea of what was best for our students without first looking at what worked for everybody else across the country.” Exposed to new ideas and perspectives from peers going through similar challenges, the district team said they began questioning their commitment to an asynchronous-only model for their students.

An "aha" Moment

After returning from a session led by Jill Rogier from ASU Prep Digital, Pelukas threw her notebook on the table shared with her district team and said, “Forget everything I thought I knew. We’re starting over here. We’ve got to think about this idea of hybrid [learning].” Another cohort member, Matrix for Success Academy in Los Angeles, shared during that session how their hybrid program was able to create a flexible environment that still facilitated strong relationship building. “The main theme is the flexibility,” Pelukas explained, “giving kids the independence to learn… traditional learning doesn't work for everyone.” Hearing ASU Prep Digital and Matrix’s stories about relationship building helped the P-CSS team understand that they were missing out on seeing the kids enrolled in their virtual academy face-to-face.

On the final day of the convening, the P-CCS team visited a school run by a fellow member of their Strategy Lab cohort: Dallas Hybrid Preparatory. Serving 70 students in grades 3-8, Dallas Hybrid designs a weekly schedule that includes two virtual days and three in-person days. Reflecting on a panel discussion with Dallas Hybrid students and parents, Pelukas said, “In my mind, if a student chose virtual, they didn't want to come in person ever… and then when we went to Dallas Hybrid, listening to the kids talk about how important it was for them to be with their peers on those days and the flexibility and cool things they could do… it all kind of clicked that these kids really like this.” Throughout their experience at the All-Cohort Convening, participants repeatedly emphasized the importance of connection for virtual students and the opportunity that a more balanced hybrid approach could bring.

Dreaming Big, but Starting Small

On a classroom whiteboard at Dallas Hybrid, Pelukas and team immediately began applying their new learnings from both the student-parent Dallas Hybrid panel and the past few days at the All-Cohort Convening to their context. Pelukas asked, “What does it look like for us? How many days on Zoom? How many days are they working asynchronously? What do we need to make that happen?” Since P-CCS Virtual Academy does not have a brick-and-mortar campus, the team focused on shifting to a balance of live synchronous and independent asynchronous virtual learning.

Through the Strategy Lab process, P-CCS ran a small test – or pilot – to better understand how their solution would work in reality. Pelukas said, “Piloting was not on my radar…. I was going to give the schedule to the teachers and [say], ‘This is what we're doing.’” The two-week pilot of the new schedule showed promise immediately with improvements in engagement and work completion data. Surveys and interviews with students, families, and teachers further affirmed the team’s hopes: the flexibility and balance of asynchronous and synchronous learning worked. The pilot was a critical learning opportunity as it also surfaced areas for improvement before launching school-wide. “I feel so much better going into the beginning of the school year because we've done this and we've hopefully fixed all the little things,” Pelukas explained, “so we can say, ‘this is the best thing for your kids right now… that's why we're doing this.’”

The Impact of Not Having to Learn All by Yourself

The P-CCS Virtual Academy is one of many virtual programs within traditional public school systems across the country. In seeking to make the program more effective, equitable, and engaging, the district team had the opportunity to learn from and with others facing similar challenges. Through carefully positioned resources, experts, coaching, and peers, as well as a timely visit to a peer school, P-CCS was able to critically evaluate its goals, be exposed to new perspectives and ideas, and test out an entirely new model for their program. Networked learning gave the district team the inspiration, support, and tools needed to dive into a program redesign mid-way through a school year, with improved student engagement a direct result.

Pelukas Pull Quote 2

Are you interested in learning about the next iteration of Strategy Lab? Reach out to to receive an update when the new Strategy Lab is announced.

About the Author

Nate Kellogg is a Partner at The Learning Accelerator. With a decade of experience in schools, Nate leverages his expertise in innovation for equity to support school- and systems-level improvement to accelerate transformation.