It’s no secret that the teacher shortage is the U.S. has reached critical mass. In fact, school districts from coast to coast are reporting an extreme lack of teachers, with some schools having to close their doors for short periods due to a lack of qualified instructors – and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated the problem.
No school district is immune. Clark County School District (CCSD), based in Las Vegas, Nevada, is the fifth largest school district in the country, and is home to more than 320,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade — enrolling approximately 75 percent of all K–12 students in the entire state of Nevada. The district includes 360 schools covering 8,000 square miles. With many thousands of students spread out across more than a hundred middle and high schools, CCSD’s resources were already stretched thin even before the pandemic hit.
The Nevada Learning Academy (NVLA), a CCSD alternative school, was facing a mounting teacher shortage. “For instance, even with such a high percentage of native Spanish speaking people in our district, we still can’t fulfill CCSD’s needs for Spanish teachers,” says NVLA Principal Andrea Connolly.
As the teacher crisis deepened, CCSD realized that something had to be done, and turned to an innovative approach to rectify the problem: Online learning programs.
A flexible option for school districts
Online learning programs augment classroom instruction with online courses, creating a balanced and robust offering to all students. Online learning programs provide students with high-quality education, while also taking some of the pressure off of school districts to provide a teacher in every classroom for dozens of students. The online courses buttress the teachers’ instruction, while also providing resources for students to become more independent learners.
To supplement classroom teaching, the NVLA and CCSD teamed up with Stride Learning Solutions to create and deliver blended online instruction to middle and high school students across the district.
All courses are taught by full-time NVLA teachers, plus part-time teachers from CCSD’s regular brick-and-mortar schools. Teachers create an immersive learning environment around online courses consisting of several components: weekly live broadcasts, regular face-to-face school visits, impromptu teacher-produced videos, and constant one-to-one communications with students and parents via email, text, as well as direct phone conversations.
Students devote five to seven hours per week to online courses in school labs, using school-provided portable computing devices, or their own computing devices via CCSD’s bring-your-own-device program.
In such a large school district, there are many logistical and economic reasons why the supplemental online program is a great solution to maximize student opportunities while conserving human and fiscal resources. The school may not be able to offer specific courses in certain academic areas, or there may be more students wanting a course than the school can accommodate. Online courses provide greater flexibility for students who have schedule conflicts. Athletes, performers and actors, for example, often can’t attend regular classes, as well as students with medical issues.
Sessions are recorded and posted, allowing students to view them when they are able. Live sessions typically focus on what students need to produce that week, as well as questions from the previous week.
A powerful tool for teachers
Teachers travel to schools to meet with their students at least once a quarter. Much of the visit is motivational and provides a chance for teachers to get to know and bond with students. Visits also help teachers more directly understand individual students’ needs. Teachers say these face-to-face visits are particularly useful for middle school students who generally need more support than high school students who are more used to taking online courses.
On a regular basis, teachers produce and post new videos for students. The videos cover topics of the moment. They may include additional explanations in areas where students are struggling, or early in the semester, technicalities and standards of how to take and navigate the course.
Surrounding all the instructional components of the course is a constant stream of one-to-one and small group communication between teachers, students, and parents. Emails and texts are the go-to method, but students also have teachers’ work phone numbers.
It’s all about the relationship between teachers and students, and the online learning programs have opened the channels of communication between students and teachers. Students know that, even though they’re taking an online course, they are never more than an email, text, or phone call away from their teachers. What’s more, the program has allowed CCSD to maintain its own rigorous educational standards – despite a nationwide teacher shortage – and to ensure that every student has access to a high-quality course.