A charter school scheduled to open this fall plans to combine online learning and face-to-face instruction and a splash of adventure to build a model for middle school success.
Rather than a school that is exclusively on the Web or in a traditional classroom, Alianza Academy is testing a hybrid, the first of its kind in Utah. Every student will have access to a computer or digital tablet, but all instruction will take place during a regular school day on four campuses with the assistance of learning coaches and certified teachers. Students also will collaborate on projects and participate in an "art and adventure" program that will include visits to Tracy Aviary, the Wasatch Mountains and other outdoor spots.
Alianza hopes the hybrid model will help diminish the persistent achievement gaps between affluent and economically disadvantaged students and whites and minorities. The charter school, serving grades 4-7 (eighth grade will be added eventually), will operate on campuses in West Valley City, Magna, South Salt Lake and Salt Lake City's Rose Park neighborhood.
The school still is finalizing agreements for buildings in those locations.
Charter schools are tuition-free and paid for with public funds allocated on a per-student basis. While anyone can attend a charter school, Alianza is "targeting at-risk kids," notes its academic director, Sylvia McMillan. "We've strategically located our facilities in areas of town where there's low socioeconomic status and high minority populations."
Last year, 73 percent of white students, in all grades tested, scored proficient on state math exams, compared with 44 percent of Latino students and 46 percent of black students. The divide is similar for economically disadvantaged students: 55 percent earned proficient math scores compared with 75 percent of students who aren't disadvantaged.
McMillan says the academy will also target middle grades because that's when potential high school dropouts begin to fall behind and lose interest in academics.
The U.S. Department of Education, in a 2009 review of published studies of online learning, found Web-based instruction offered a modest advantage over conventional classroom teaching, but a blend has proven more effective than either method alone.
"The thing that is most intriguing about the hybrid model is being able to use technology in a way that allows students to have individualized education plans," says McMillan, a former teacher at Waterford, a private school in Sandy. "They can move at their own pace, with our guidance and direction."
The ability for kids to learn at their own speed is what attracted parent Lisa O'Brien to Alianza. She has tried her neighborhood public school and a private school, but she began home-schooling her children this year because she was dissatisfied with both. She plans to send her oldest two children to fourth and sixth grades at Alianza.
"There's more room to accelerate," says O'Brien, who lives in Kearns. "There's no holding the kids back."
So far, 220 students have enrolled at Alianza, which has space for 500. There will be a lottery on March 16 to fill the remaining slots.
Currently, there are 40,000 students attending 78 charter schools in Utah. In addition to Alianza, Utah Connections Academy, Endeavor Hall and Baer Canyon High will debut next fall. Utah Connections Academy will be Utah's third online charter school, serving K-12 students anywhere in the state. Endeavor Hall, a West Valley City elementary, has a focus on writing. Baer Canyon in Kaysville emphasizes sports and medical sciences. The high school plans to award college scholarships to students who improve their health by decreasing their body mass index.
"One of the goals that Utah's charter statute outlined was that we create innovative teaching methods, innovative schools," says Chris Bleak, president of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools. "[Alianza] combines new-school technology with the tradition of bricks and mortar. It's exciting to see. I hope it's another model we can use to serve children in this state."