If you paid a visit to one of ResponsiveEd’s highest performing schools, you would see students quietly sitting at their desks independently working through their classwork. By third grade, students are reading through their knowledge units, completing assignments and raising their flag when they have questions for their teachers.
Mike Griffin has served as the campus director since the school first opened in 2007. In that time, he has seen the mastery-based learning environment produce independent learners with strong reading skills who are ready to take on college coursework.
“College readiness and early college completion are our two goals. Because students are working at a personalized pace, by the time they graduate they have gained mastery of the course content, and many will earn their associate degree. With the personalized program students have to take on responsibility for their work, which helps them build the habits and skills to easily handle college coursework,” Mr. Griffin said.
A senior at iSchool High of Amarillo this year, Leah Jarvis, says the program has challenged her to meet her potential. This spring she will graduate with her associate degree and her high school diploma, which will allow her to enter Abilene Christian University’s honors program and graduate in two or three years.
“It has been great because I have gotten used to the pattern of college work so I feel very prepared for what I might face at a university or a college. Being immersed in it for four years has been incredibly helpful,” Leah said.
Finding a school that could challenge Leah was important to her mother, Shelli Jarvis.
“When Leah was five years old, she was almost at a sixth grade reading level. That was a challenge because there were not a lot of options. We had her at a private school, but by the time she finished fifth grade she said she wasn’t being challenged,” Mrs. Jarvis said.
After homeschooling for a year, they finally found a program that met their needs at Vista Academy of Amarillo.
ResponsiveEd first launched Vista Academy of Amarillo and iSchool High of Amarillo together to serve students kindergarten through twelfth grade. While the school offers direct-instruction classes in more challenging classes, in most classes students typically read through coursework and complete hands-on work to gain mastery. After completing the work for a unit, they test to show 90% mastery before they move on. If students are struggling, teachers are available to work with them one-on-one.
Since students work independently, they can accelerate their pace based on their level of mastery. Math and science are the two subjects students are allowed to accelerate. Students who have worked at an accelerated pace are able to start taking college level classes through the local community college by the time they start their first year of high school.
A student’s ability to excel in this personalized learning environment is based on a deliberate kindergarten through second grade learning-to read-program. At these grade levels, students at Vista Academy of Amarillo build the reading skills they need through direct-teach style classes which focus on phonics.
“If you don’t have a strong kindergarten through second grade program, students are more likely to have gaps and struggle to read independently. We avoid those gaps through a very deliberate sequence that builds vivid pictures in their mind. Kindergartners learn to identify all the letters, then the sounds in phonics, then they learn the blends which eventually turn into words, then sentences, and eventually into guided reading books,” Mr. Griffin said.
When students first come to the school in pre-K, they take a test to assess everything from knowledge of colors to attention span. With the data from that test, the teachers begin to build a learning program that will meet each student’s learning needs. By the time they have completed the K-2 program, students are reading fluidly and have confidence to start working independently.
The 3-12 program has organization structured into the program. From the beginning, students are taught to set appropriate daily, weekly and monthly goals for each subject, which their teachers monitor. They learn how to organize their homework and notes to keep on track of their progress. Their teachers regularly check their notebooks to make sure they are taking good notes.
Teacher and testing coordinator at the school, Katisha Reneau, says the structure of the program helps keep students organized and on track.
“Each day before a student leaves he or she has to compete a goal card. In math they might have to complete six pages. They do that for every subject every day. Once they complete a unit, they get to put a star on their star charts. They complete two stars in every subject every six weeks. If they make 100% they get a gold star. They love having gold stars. The different subjects are also color coded: red folders and stars are for English, social studies is green and so on,” Mrs. Reneau said.
The program allows teachers to be efficient with their time and effective in reaching the individual needs of each student.
“It is a blended learning environment with a curriculum that saves teachers the time of making lesson plans. If a child is a visual learner, there is the text to read. If they are an auditory learner there are video and audio pieces. There are also group projects for kinesthetic learners,” Mrs. Reneau said.
Teachers also set aside time each day for direct-instruction of certain concepts to the whole class and as well as work individually with certain students on specific subjects.
Finding a school program that empowered their children to meet their potential has given parents hope and confidence in their future.
“I have no doubt that Leah will adjust well in college. I feel like if she had left even a year ago she would have been fully prepared for college because it is all about knowing how to pace yourself. She has already had four years of practice in her college classes, and you can’t put any monetary value on that. She has developed the discipline and integrity that will get her anywhere she wants to go,” Mrs. Jarvis said.