STAMFORD — Virtual learning could soon become a reality for some Stamford high schoolers as the district looks to create alternative options for students who struggle with a traditional schedule or learning model of high school.
At a meeting of the district’s Teaching and Learning Committee last week, Matt Laskowski, principal of Rippowam Middle School, said he hoped to partner with Norwalk as Stamford looks to establish its own program. Laskowski said that he has talked with the Norwalk Public Schools about their Future Ready Program, which includes a virtual learning academy for students in 11th and 12th grade.
“I think remote learning is just one opportunity that we can help meet the needs of all students here in Stamford,” said Laskowski.
The State of Connecticut currently allows remote learning at the high-school level, if the instruction meets guidelines the state released in February.
Connecticut prohibits “dual instruction” – teaching students at home and in the classroom simultaneously — but the guidelines allow for “course sharing,” meaning that teachers are allowed to provide simultaneous distance and in-person learning as long as the students are in a classroom.
The state has not yet developed remote-learning guidelines for grades K-8, but intends to release them for the 2024-25 school year.
Board of Education member Becky Hamman said she had the opportunity of teaching remotely during the pandemic, and that while not every teacher was able to do it successfully, for those who were comfortable with it, it could be a positive experience.
“It can work and kids can do very well with it,” said Hamman.
But Board of Education Chair Jackie Heftman said that the existing guidelines did not address a big challenge for the school districts — the “sporadic interruptions” that many students experience during the year – for example, a student sick with COVID and out of class for a week, or an immigrant student who might return to his or her country for a month during the winter.
“I would think that we would want to spend every moment that we could with students, whether they’re in school or whether they’re home for some reason. But because there’s this prohibition on dual instruction — it isn’t helping. It’s just not helping the problem,” said Heftman.
A virtual school isn’t the only alternative instructional method the district is considering.
Laskowski said he was also working on setting up a Big Picture Learning High School that would open next fall and provide an alternative pathway to graduation. The school would have small class sizes with individualized instruction and focus on providing students with internships and work experience. Laskowski said the pilot program would encompass one or two grade levels with 50 or 60 students.
Recently, Laskowski said, district employees have been traveling around Stamford neighborhoods conducting what Laskowski calls “empathy interviews” — asking families what was going well and what was not in the high schools, and what they would change if they could. Laskowski said the district would use the feedback to decide what programs would be part of the Big Picture Learning School.
Laskowski said he was also looking into establishing a “twilight school” for students who have evening jobs and may struggle to get up during the day. Rather than coming in for the typical school day, these students would be able to come in during the second of the day’s four 90-minute blocks — at 8:45 a.m. rather than at 7:20 a.m. — and would have an additional period they would stay for after the other students left for the day.
Conrad Vahlsing, senior staff attorney for CABE – a statewide nonprofit that advises boards of education – said that his organization and the state agreed that in-person learning was always the better option. He said that, in its guidance, the state suggested for high schools considering remote learning to “start small,” by offering only a few courses remotely or restricting the courses to upperclassmen.
Laksowski agreed that virtual learning “is not for everybody,” but said that, for some students, it could be valuable.
“There is a small carve out of students who a virtual learning program or academy would really benefit,” he said.
Heftman said that she agreed that in-person learning was better, but that there needed to be options for the times when students were simply not able to attend class in person.
“We live in a technological world. And it’s part of what teachers are going to have to do in the future,” she said. “We as a school system have to make the professional development available for those teachers who are not where they need to be in the technology area, because we need to be addressing the needs of our students — and that should always be the most important thing.”