10 Reasons Every District Should Open a Flex School

Learning, Online & Blended / by

Flex is category of blended learning. Innosight Institute in their recently updated classifications of blended learning defined a flex model as “a program in which content and instruction are delivered primarily by the Internet, students move on an individually customized, fluid schedule among learning modalities, and the teacher-of-record is on-site.” While most instruction is online, “The teacher-of-record or other adults provide face-to-face support on a flexible and adaptive as-needed basis through activities such as small-group instruction, group projects, and individual tutoring.”

In schools using rotation models, student spent 20 to 50 percent of their time online.  As noted in a previous post on this topic, Rocketship Education is a high-performing elementary network where students spend two hours per day in a computer lab.  KIPP Empower in Los Angeles has classroom centers that students rotate through.  At Carpe Diem, a Yuma Arizona high school, students split their time between workshops and personal learning online. Matriculation at rotation schools is typically by cohort but with more flexibility to meet individual needs than a traditional school.

In contrast, flex schools have a digital backbone–core instruction is conducted online with on-site academic support and guidance, integration and application opportunities, and extracurricular activities.  Students in flex schools progress as they demonstrate mastery in most courses.  In some courses, particularly those with teachers at a distance, they may remain part of a virtual cohort.

In short, rotation schools add some online learning to what otherwise may look like a traditional school while flex schools start with online learning and add physical supports and connections where valuable.  As a result, the potential for innovation is higher in flex schools.

There are 10 existing or potential benefits of flex models:

  1. Competency-based: Students progress based on demonstrated mastery; they use cohort groups and teams when and where they are helpful.
  2. Customized experience: Flex models make it easy to customize the experience for each student. As platforms get more robust, student pathways will become more customized (by interest, modality, motivation, and schedule).
  3. Portable and flexible: Students can take a flex school on the road for a family vacation or for a work or community-based learning experience.
  4. Accelerated learning: Flex models allow students to move at their own pace. For students with partial content knowledge but credit deficiencies, the ability to move quickly and test out of topics they have mastered may allow them to earn credits at 150% of the normal rate.
  5. Productive operations: Flex models have the potential to operate at lower cost than alternative education models.
  6. Save rural high schools. Flex models make it easy to run very good very small high schools.  Where it would have been difficult to serve 100 students with a traditional comprehensive high school model, a flex program can offer every AP course, every foreign language, every high level STEM course–all in an affordable and well supported environment.
  7. New staffing models. Flex models make use of differentiated (levels) and distributed (locations) staffing.  As Opportunity Culture notes, we need to invent new ways to leverage talent with technology and flex models will be the source of the most interesting and productive staffing strategies.
  8. Early college. Flex models facilitate college credit accumulation in high school.  Look for AP, dual enrollment, and career/major specific models.  Flex students should be able to finish high school in three years with a year of college credit.
  9. Leverage local assets. Flex models the unique ability to leverage community assets like museums, theaters, historical sites, and natural resources and to link to emerging industry clusters and internship opportunities.
  10. Site visits. For many of us site visits are the most important component of professional learning.  Experiencing competency-based blended learning with innovative staffing and scheduling is far more powerful than reading about it.

The Flex name comes from San Francisco Flex and Silicon Valley Flex, two new schools that combine the K12 core curriculum with a full day of academic support, clubs, and activities.

AdvancePath has been running flex dropout prevention academies nationwide for more than five years. Students that are a year or two behind have the opportunity to get back on track by earning credits more rapidly than would be possible in a typical classroom. AdvancePath has used the flexibility of the flex model to develop a robust response-to-intervention (RTI) solution for high school–a personalized pathway for every student.

Connections Learning is supporting development of a flex network called Nexus Academy starting with Ohio and Michigan this fall.  The double shifted high schools will each serve about 250 students. The release suggests that “students will attend a uniquely designed physical campus where teachers interact with students both online and on-site, while campus-based “Success Coaches” help guide students through Connections Education’s comprehensive online high school curriculum.

Using a flex model, every community can afford to have a great high school.  Every community should have a flex option that provides a fully supported individualized pathways to graduation.  Every community should use a flex model to leverage local resources and meet specific needs.  Every district should open a flex model so that everyone can visit and experience the future of education.

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Disclosures: Tom is a director of AdvancePath. Connections and K12 are advocacy partners.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is founder and CEO of Getting Smart. He is also a partner in Learn Capital and a director of iNACOL, Digital Learning Institute, Imagination Foundation, Charter Board Partners, Strive for College, and Bloomboard.

7 Comments

Linda Aragoni /

Having high school students finish with a year of college credits is wonderful, but how about equal treatment for the kids who are not college oriented? Can we give them a year of free post-secondary vocational training, too?

Danielle Lamb /

Flex schools are a great option and hold many benefits as you have pointed out. A big complaint about online learning programs is the lack of social (face to face) interaction and help for the students, but the flex model addresses those concerns. Of the benefits that you listed, the ones that stood out the most to me were the benefits of flexibility and customization of the student’s needs. Also, the cost factor is important as many school districts and families are facing budget restraints. Low costs will be critical in helping a new educational program move forward.
Danielle
NCSU
Dr. Setser ECI-509

Brittany Seperack /

I love hearing about all of the benefits of flex programs. While for some people a school experience that involves a limited amount of face-to-face interaction is not ideal, for many others it could be “just what the doctor ordered” and could help reduce the dropout rate. I personally have a close family member who attended high school in upstate New York. She was subject to bullying in high school and subsequently dropped out. Her high school does not offer online classes or a blended learning program. Perhaps if it did her path to attending college or obtaining a job would not be such an uphill battle. Thanks for the info!

Brittany Seperack
Dr. Setser’s ECI 509 course

Tom Vander Ark /

A backbone of standards-alinged curriculum also allows a variety of ‘flipped school’ learning opportunities: project-based and challenge-based learning, socratic seminars, and work & community based learning.

Tom Vander Ark /

Flex offers the potential for dynamic social learning (i.e., participating in several real time project/study/interest groups) as well as small group instruction, 1:1 tutoring, and lots of integration/application opportunities. Now that we don’t need cohorts (butts in seats) as the basic organizing principle, we can be creative about when/where/why/how we add social learning groups to the mix.

Tom Vander Ark /

They can leave HS with a voc certificate (or significant progress toward one). The challenge will be getting high schools to recognize programs. That’s why we need funding systems where money follows the kid to the (state approved) course/certification program.

Terry Griet /

Great points! We opened flex schools in Guilford County, NC in 2004 and they are still successful. When I moved to San Diego Unified, we designed our virtual high school, iHi, around the flex concept!