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BCPS tries new 'blended learning' approach for summer school

This summer, Baltimore County Public Schools took a different approach to teaching summer school.

On Friday, August 1, the last day of summer school, ten students sat in front of computers in the library of Catonsville High School in an attempt to master material they hadn't been able to during the school year. They learned biology, chemistry and health, with the help of Lansdowne High teachers Paula Medley and Ella Reid.

Chloe Gordon, 19, a senior at Catonsville High was one of those students, working to complete a biology course, along with students from Lansdowne High, Woodlawn High and two students from private schools.

"I like it because it's easier working on the computer," Gordon said.

The approach is called "blended learning", and is being used to teach students certain classes with the assistance of a computer program from Apex Learning.

"Baltimore County decided to change summer school a little bit, because we're doing a lot more blended learning and online learning throughout the school year — we thought doing it during the summer would expand it even more," said Eric Eiswert, vice principal of Catonsville High.

All courses with the exception of ninth grade English, tenth grade English and Algebra 1, were taught using the blended learning program. Those three were taught in a traditional classroom setting. Teachers facilitate some mini-lessons and help the students one-on-one with any questions they have with the material.

Students read, complete a worksheet and take a quiz. If they earn a score of 80 percent or better, they move on to the next lesson.

"It's designed to be a recovery course, so all of the students in here had not passed...It worked well as that but it would not work well all the time teaching this way," said Sharon Rutz, chairwoman of the English department at Lansdowne High, who taught and 11th and 12th grade blended learning English course with Rich Hambor, an English teacher at Catonsville High.

"They knew a lot of the material already — this course allowed them to, like a college entrance exam, test out of some things," Hambor said. "The things that they had already mastered, they didn't have to do again."

Hambor said the traditional classroom is necessary during the school year, but for a summer school program, the new approach worked well.

"They needed the background they got during the year, even if they failed the course," Hambor said.

By using the computer program, students learned at their own pace, which allowed them to take ownership of their learning, Eiswert said.

"These kids are so used to getting information through the computer screen that it was very natural. I think it felt at home for them, especially for some of these kids who reject the traditional teaching from an adult who is in charge," Eiswert said.

There were about 230 students enrolled in summer school at Catonsville High with approximately 160 enrolled in the blended learning program, Eiswert said. Approximately 90 percent of the 160 students enrolled in summer school completed their courses before the four weeks were complete, he said.

Eiswert said the program worked well with seniors, who were motivated to complete the courses quickly.

"We still struggled with the ninth graders — they need a lot of hand holding," Eiswert said.

About 20 students who didn't finish will be able to continue the courses at their home schools, which differs from previous years when students would fail and have to start the course from the beginning, Eiswert said.

"It's really good for kids because it gives them hope — even if they don't finish, all that time wasn't wasted," Eiswert said.

Eiswert said the learning approach improved behavioral issues, which prevented classroom disruptions and overall made the learning process more efficient.

"I think in the long run, this is going to save the county money in many ways, because we're going to be able to consolidate and students don't need as long to get through," Eiswert said. "So I think it's a great way to shift resources."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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