Build a credit: Helping students pursue individual pathways to graduation

The stakes are always high as secondary school students get close to graduation. Their future educational and work choices depend on completing all of their requirements, so the pressure is on. For some students, that pressure, combined with other factors that make them less sure of success, can make graduation simply a far off shore.

And so, “Build a Credit” was born. It’s a flexible and evolving online learning approach and credit earning option for students being pioneered at Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School (SJAM) in Waterloo. And it addresses the shared, strategic determination of both the school and the board to get more students past that graduation goal post.

At SJAM, students who have lost their momentum and are struggling to attain needed credits are now being directed to an “alternative path to graduation” that shows real promise says SJAM Principal, Jennifer Shortreed. Technology tools, high engagement content, and a whole new online learning approach is revolutionizing how a few students have moved to within striking distance of their end goal – graduation.

“Some students are uncomfortable with traditional classroom settings, or they might have mental health or home issues, or even learning disabilities, that are getting in the way of their success or putting them at risk of dropping out,” says Shortreed, who notes that these difficulties have an impact on attendance as well. “Our new ‘Build A Credit’ approach gives them a way to work independently and online with teacher support and their Chromebooks to cover content required by the provincial curriculum.”

Two SJAM students get support from their teachers in the Student Success Centre

This spring, 13 students were working diligently, and at various levels, with Student Success teachers at SJAM to design their own courses of study using online tools and resources. They can work from home or in the Student Success Centre at the school.

At the outset, the students virtually build their own credit and, working with a teacher, identify online resources that will support their understanding of the core curriculum content. Once the course is set, the student commences their self-directed study, checking in often with their teacher, taking several quizzes and completing an online inquiry assignment. They can work outside the school 100 percent of time, if that is their preference and link into school via phone, FaceTime, email or Google classroom. The students also set their own learning goals and are encouraged to remain accountable for them, even when other distractions and good old-fashioned procrastination threaten their advancement. With hard work, a credit can be completed within a six-week period.

“Build a Credit” was exactly what Corben Ekmanis needed. His shyness and anxiety made class time really difficult and he had fallen very far behind when this new learning option became available to him. Clearly delighted with his own progress, Corben is on track to graduate even earlier than planned. He’s completed a number of modules and course credits, and spends every second period, each day, in the SJAM Student Success Room. A world of possibilities has opened up for him and he’s been able to pursue topics that truly interest him, while keeping within the parameters of required study guidelines. Most recently, through an interdisciplinary credit, Corben completed a multi-media inquiry project devoted to how music affects video games, which he embellished with an array of hyperlinks, player input and music he recorded himself.

Grade 12 Student, Luke McGill can barely contain himself when talking about his recent experience with “Build a Credit”. He enthusiastically explains that he is now able to pursue more credits per semester and that he actually enjoys the learning process, especially the options to pursue topics of interest and express his own opinions. He says that he is now more confident and self-reliant, and is imagining post-secondary education in a way that never occurred to him before. He has particularly enjoyed learning about his own, personal learning style (and the study skills that go with it) and he has been helping Student Success teacher, Anne Doelman, refine and adjust online learning options at SJAM, providing a critical feedback loop.

With a plethora of online and independent learning options to pick from, the Student Success teachers at SJAM believe they have hit upon the missing ingredients and the transformational bridge to gaining credits for their students. “The technology and the pedagogy are finally coming together in a way that had been previously imagined but not realized,” says, Doelman “We’ve learned that teacher support remains key, but we are also seeing the students just take off with their studies. It is sometimes hard to keep up with them!”

This new online learning model affords both students and educators a lot of flexibility to build a course of study suited to personalities, content and curriculum requirements. Doelman and her Student Success colleague, Ivanka Rowley, both highlight that they are there to both navigate and negotiate with students so their learning journey stays on track and credits are earned.

This learning innovation by SJAM students and teachers got its start last fall when the school hosted a Canadian Student Leadership Conference (CSLC) that involved putting the whole school online for a three-day long learning experiment says Vice-Principal, Sandy Millar. During this time, SJAM teaching staff honed their skills related to building and offering online lessons. “Build a Credit” just took it to the next level.

As the school continues to reflect upon and improve the program, Shortreed stresses the importance of remaining innovative and responsive to student needs. “This is messy learning for all, but important work to continue to evaluate and measure against student achievement,” she adds. SJAM will have company in this endeavour as the other 15 high schools in the region will begin collaboration on a blended-learning student success-based program in the 2018-19 school year.

For now, every credit earned is a win. And the students and teachers associated with “Build a Credit” will tell you they know what success looks like.

by Susan Wright