When we imagine the typical school, at least one from the pre-pandemic era, generally the first thing that comes to mind is a teacher instructing a classroom full of students. But the scene can be quite different for California’s 190,000-plus students who attend charter schools where at least 20 percent of their instruction takes place outside of this traditional setting. The state calls these “nonclassroom-based” (NCB) schools, and they include full-time virtual schools, independent-study charters, and supported homeschooling. According to Caprice Young, leader of the Learn4Life charter network:
The biggest misunderstanding is that NCB schools are all online schools. Some are and some are not, but the term NCB refers to the way the schools are reimbursed for services, not their instructional context. Traditional schools earn state dollars based on enrollment calculated based on student seat-time in a classroom, whereas NCBs are reimbursed based on the amount of academic school work the students do. In this manner, NCBs (which include both charter and non-charter public schools) are closer to the new proficiency-based funding models many innovators are calling for post-pandemic.
Sometimes these schools get a bad rap. But a new report issued by the California Charter Schools Association attempts to clear up some misconceptions, and argues that these schools meet the needs of many California students and families.
The report emphasizes that the wide variety of school types under the umbrella of “Nonclassroom-based” allows students and families to make schooling choices tailored to their needs. Many schools offer a career-focus or engage in some form of personalized learning, for example, while others offer college-readiness programs. Still others are oriented around particular pedagogical perspectives, such as those with constructivist, content-focused, or twenty-first-century-skills offerings. The sector also particularly caters to students who are credit-deficient or who have otherwise had difficulty in traditional schools. Approximately one-third of NCB schools serve such a high proportion of high-risk students that they qualify for “dashboard alternative school status” and are evaluated according to an alternative accountability model. These programs, in particular, serve a high proportion of low-income and highly mobile students.
Furthermore, over the many years that they have been in operation, NCB schools have developed distinct forms of expertise in meeting students’ learning needs. The report identifies eight common best practices that NCB leaders view as critical to their schools’ success:
- Personalized Learning. Many NCB programs tailor their instructional programs to students’ unique needs, interests, and situations. Students and families have more flexibility and choice when selecting curriculum, learning environments, and pacing.
- Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning. Flexibility is extended by a combination of live and asynchronous learning opportunities that students may opt to attend in order to receive additional support from trained educators.
- Strong Teacher and Student Relationships. NCB teachers have clearly delineated responsibilities for connecting individually with students and families, and frequently engage in personalize check-ins with students.
- Flexibility of Instruction Timing and Style. Students can engage in instruction at the time, place, and in the format that best works for them. This is particularly of benefit to at-risk students, who may work or have care-taking responsibilities that preclude their ability to engage on the typical 8 a.m.–3 p.m. schooling schedule.
- Parents/Guardians are Active Participants in Students’ Learning. Schools host frequent trainings for parents on how to support their students and view parents as important participants in their students’ learning journey.
- Emphasis on Students’ Responsibility. Without the structure of the traditional classroom, students take on greater responsibility for regulating their own schedules and learning. While NCB teachers provide appropriate support and accountability structures, many schools aim to cultivate student responsibility and ownership of their own learning.
- Adapted to Meet Diverse Student Needs. In addition to meeting the needs of many at-risk students, NCBs often work well for high-performing athletes, accelerated learners, students with medical conditions, and many who have experienced bullying or emotional distress in previous school settings.
- Providing Needed Educational Options. NCB leaders viewed their programs as serving an important function for students whose needs are suited to the unique environment these schools offer and for school districts that may otherwise have limited resources.
The California Charter Schools Association’s report contributes much-needed nuance to the debate around NCB schools by emphasizing the variation within this sector. Policy that blanket-regulates NCB schools may unnecessarily hinder students and families from accessing widely-appreciated programs that accommodate atypical needs and lifestyles. Nonetheless, California will do well to evaluate how to appropriately hold these schools accountable for producing positive learning outcomes and ensure that they are responsible stewards of public funds. But this can surely happen without further inhibition of the expansion of NCB educational opportunities.
SOURCE: Slakey, J. (2021) Serving Diverse Student Needs in the Golden State: Practices and Programs of Nonclassroom-based Charter Public Schools. California Charter Schools Association.