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Grand Rapids schools hopes to improve online learning model

Sarah M. Stewart
Creative Commons
The program at GRPS is a "blend" of traditional and online instruction. Right now it is only for freshman and sophomore high school students.

A report out this week shows more than half of high school freshmen and sophomores failed the first semester of the new blended-online courses at Grand Rapids Public Schools. GRPS is Michigan's third largest K-12 district.

The program launched in the fall of 2010. At the time it was (and may very well continue to be) incredibly controversial. Like any new program, Grand Rapids schools spokesman John Helmholdt says there was an adjustment period the first semester.

“There was both a district-wide layoff but also a huge early retirement incentive where we had more than 400 teachers, principals, and support staff retire; and so that first semester was a little rocky,” Helmholdt said. The retirement incentive was offered by the State of Michigan to try to save districts and the state money.

Test scores improved in the spring 2011 semester, but the failure rate was still 44-percent.

“Unfortunately the failure rate in traditional classrooms is about the same,” Helmholdt said, “That’s not a good statistic by any means, but I think a lot of people are trying to point and kind of scrutinize this blended learning because of the online aspect of it.” He says some teachers aren’t buying into the program; he cites an example over this last summer where a training session was offered but only about half the teachers eligible showed.

In the report students said they were frustrated by some technology problems early on and how fast paced the blended classes were. Teachers said too often students get off task, checking social media like facebook instead of doing their school work.

Helmholdt says Grand Rapids schools is working on a number of ways to improve the model. There are no plans to get rid of the program.

Lindsey Smith helps lead the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Radio’s Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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