Kevin: According to the Department of Education, nearly 300,000 K-12 students were enrolled in a fully virtual school in 2019. And with the shift to online learning during the pandemic, enrollment in virtual schools is growing throughout the entire United States. Why has the movement to expand virtual learning continued even after many schools have returned to in-person instruction? What are the benefits to students, and what is the future of virtual learning? This is what I want to know.
Kevin: And today, I'm joined by Efrain Garza to find out. As Deputy Superintendent of the South Texas Independent School District, Efrain Garza has over 20 years of experience creating and implementing new school systems. Most recently, he was the Executive Director of Student Support for South Texas ISD's Virtual Academy, which opened in the fall of 2021, offering a full online curriculum for students in grades six through nine. He is with us today to tell us about that experience, how it has helped students in his district and what the future may hold for virtual learning in Texas and elsewhere. Mr. Garza, welcome to the show.
Efrain: Well, thank you for having me be a guest here in your fine show, and looking forward to the conversation.
Kevin: I want to talk to you about a number of things. Being a school leader these days, and a school administrator, is not an easy job, particularly with all that's happened over the last several years. And I want to talk about, particularly, your work in starting a unique virtual education experience for students, but I want to go back to the beginning first, and, as I understand, you were a science teacher.
Efrain: That's right. Started my educational career actually when I was in college, doing some substitute teaching work, got hooked, got the education bug in me, and I was a science teacher. That's how I started my career.
Kevin: Now, why science?
Efrain: Well, always liked the hands-on approach towards learning. It was always very intriguing to me. Science was something that just came natural to me. Curiosity. And so, that intrinsic feeling that I had within myself just translated well in teaching young minds. And so, I did something, what many people thought was very crazy, my peers at the time, my family. I decided not only to be a science teacher, but to be a middle school science teacher. So that age group is rambunctious, to say the least.
Kevin: Well, and one of the things about middle school students: if you find a way to engage them, you can engage anyone. And as I understand it, you had some success as a science teacher, getting kids interested in learning. What were some of the things and techniques that helped get you there?
Efrain: Where I worked in our school system, predominantly, we are a socioeconomically challenged area, so technology, connectivity, are hard to come by. But I learned very quickly that, although it's hard to come by for some families, students were just eager to learn with anything having to do with technology. So, I quickly started integrating within the classroom, anything and everything technology, whether it be in computer-based labs, presentations. Was one of the first there in the campus that I was at to have full sets of computers for our students. Wrote a grant for that and was able to accomplish that for the students. And I just saw the engagement skyrocket.
Kevin: Eventually you learned about virtual education, online learning. How did you come to that awareness?
Efrain: Well, this happened well before pandemic set in and individuals delved into, or most school systems delved into, online learning. The idea of understanding the expectations of our society now, doing everything virtually, connecting with one another, much like what you and I are doing this morning, being able to talk to one another, teach one another, be able to have more of a global approach, that's something that I saw coming. And actually, online learning, for anybody that's been in a college setting, has been going on for over 25 years easily, if not more. As soon as the internet kicked in and became more readily available to all learning institutions, online learning became that. The issue is that, as always in a public education especially and nationwide, is that we're always several steps behind what the expectations are in the work environment, the university environment, college. And so, trying to get ahead of that.
Kevin: I've had several school leaders on, administrators, education experts, and they all say something similar to what you just said, that if something new is out there, the school system is several steps behind. Why is that?
Efrain: I think that for the most part, it goes back to fundamentally breaking from the traditional setting. You know, when we think about schools as adults, and I'm talking about adults in general, all of us, we think about school as when we went to school.
Kevin: Yeah. Yeah.
Efrain: And so, that was sitting at a desk, a paper, pencil, teacher at the front did a class, lecturing, quiz at the end of the day or a big test, and two weeks into a subject or a particular content, and you get a grade and that's it.
Kevin: So recognizing that, particularly in the school district that you have, which is a low-income student population, it was pretty amazing for you to say, "We're going to do virtual learning," when that has been a slow process for so many school districts.
Efrain: Yeah. Some of it is a leap of faith, but more than anything, it was just the commitment. If you have the will to do this kind of work, it's easier than you think. You think about the pros and cons. What we went through these past couple of years in education, having to do with online learning, hybrid learning if you will, for those, especially during the shutdown that we went through: that is not what online learning was supposed to be. And I've mentioned this to many people; that was just simply survival.
Kevin: I like to say that there's a difference between emergency learning and online learning administered by people who know what they're doing, where you can think through it, plan it out, train the teachers, have the right curriculum, have platforms that can handle the load, all those kinds of things, which most school districts didn't have during the pandemic.
Efrain: One thing that we did learn, and I think every school system throughout the country learned this: that there is a population within their school system that thrived in online learning. And are you ... now my question to those that are listening and those that may be educators: are you ignoring that fact or have you embraced that that is a need that several of the students in your school system need, and what would be very successful at?
Kevin: So I did want to make sure we drill down a little bit on the reality of online learning for those who may be listening. One thing you have to do is have a curriculum that is digitized, or beyond just the PDFs from a textbook that were in the emergency remote learning experience many school districts had to resort to. You need to have a curriculum that is adaptable online. You talked about investment; you had to spend some time and energy making sure that you reached that first step, along with the secure platform. Isn't that right?
Efrain: That's right. And a school system, most especially if you've not done it, you do not have experts within your entity to say, "Hey, we're going to do this, and we're going to do it right." You have to look for resources and individuals that have experience. And that's what teachers do, always. You're given a curriculum; you're given a classroom. You're given the ingredients; the teacher does the cooking, right?
Kevin: That's right.
Efrain: And so in this case, with online learning, it's just getting different kinds of ingredients, getting them from experts that have already worked, and getting it going.
Kevin: So, let me ask you about your experience, specifically as it related to your school. Did you find, as it relates to students, that there was a certain type of student that responded more favorably to the virtual education approach?
Efrain: The students that respond to this are not just your self-motivated students that are going to turn on that camera; they're going to show up to class. We've learned also that there are some students that are more of on-my-own-time type of learner. Okay? It's not that they don't want to learn; it's just that they have a particular way in which, when they're ready to learn, they're going to be ready to learn. And so, we learned that there are those types of learners. We also understood that a lot of students that have particular needs, in particular social-emotional, thrive. Some have said, maybe having kids online [will make them] detach themselves socially. We just understand that there are some students that don't do well being in large crowds and all.
Efrain: And then, when you put them in a brick-and-mortar school, they collapse there. But being in this type of environment, where they are online, they're able to learn a little bit differently; they feel a little bit more comfortable; their scores and their abilities have just skyrocketed. Special population students, in particular in special education, have also thrived. I think it has a lot to do in the way that they are just programmed to learn. They see the interaction; they see a screen; they see short clips. They're a little bit more tactile because they're typing in, or they're verbalizing certain things. And all of that just translates to their success. So, what we've noticed and what we've identified is that there are many students that are not being reached to their full potential in a brick-and-mortar school, but online, they're just thriving. And that has been a pleasant surprise to us all. And we see it in the success of the students, and it just makes everyone happy.
Kevin: What about courses? I get asked this a lot. Are there particular courses that seem to be more conducive to the online experience? I mean, I notice it even ... I think at your school and others, physical education is even taught online.
Efrain: So many ... the biggest rage right now is adults buying stationary bikes with a screen on it and having an online instructor.
Kevin: That's a really good point.
Efrain: Right. And so, we question: how can a student do PE, yet everybody's rushing out to go buy these stationary bikes with a screen on them and pedaling away. Okay. It's easier than one thinks. They put on webcams, they carry an app, these smart watches and all that, and they run and they are able to send data. It's just been amazing what students can do in physical education. But one thing that I do want to mention here, since you brought this up as far as particular subjects, I think what we need to understand when we talk about online learning is delving into something that is in education in general.
A lot of our students want to do project-based learning, and online lends itself to do that. There is a task at hand, a project which you work on collaboratively or on your own, and then the final product is given, and that's what you're graded on. You are now connecting so many different individuals from throughout the country, throughout the world, and their task is a project. So the collaborative approach, the work approach, is already upon us in the work environment. Yet, we are not training our students nationwide to do that kind of work; that is going to be expected of them when they hit the workforce.
Kevin: Earlier you mentioned socialization, and that is one of the big areas. In fact, when parents remove their children from an online educational experience, they talk about the socialization. And in fact, many school districts, now that the pandemic has been waning a bit — they talk about the fact that we need to get students back in a class, they need to be in socialization settings that work for them. What are your thoughts around the whole socialization issue as it relates to virtual learning?
Efrain: We cannot compare the shortfalls of social-emotional components that happen during pandemic and students going into this emergency learning to what would happen if you had a school and compare that social-emotional learning to what we just experienced in emergency learning, as you mentioned.
Kevin: The most important thing, as you've alluded to throughout this conversation, is that one size doesn't fit all, that we've got to be flexible enough as adults to meet these kids where they are. And that leads me to what I really want to know. What advice would you give to other school districts that are thinking about doing more with virtual education but they just don't feel comfortable because of the politics, because of the resistance of the teachers, because of the unknown that exists among adults?
Efrain: Well, my advice to them is: don't be afraid. It's not really advice; it's just more of a directive, really. Don't be afraid; quit it and just do it. Your students deserve better. Brick-and-mortar schools are not going to go anywhere; there's still a need for that. But the online learning campuses: that needs to grow exponentially. So, if there are individuals that are within your school system, within the community, within teachers, that are unwilling, they're reluctant, my advice to them is to, one, first and foremost, educate them. Make sure you have a concrete plan with a contingency, because usually, a contingency plan keeps people a little bit safe to say, "Okay, we'll let you, because if it doesn't work, this is what the fallback is." And just do it, because, at the end of it all, they will find that they're going to have a lot of success. And some of the things that, for example, taxpayers want to know is, how much is this going to cost me? An online school is way, way cheaper than having a brick-and-mortar school. By a lot.
Kevin: All right. Well said. Keep doing what you're doing. Efrain Garza, thank you for joining us on What I Want to Know.
Efrain: Thank you. And thank you for having me.
Kevin: Thanks for joining What I Want to Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review too. Explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know, using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK on social media. For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining What I Want to Know.
As the deputy superintendent of the South Texas Independent School District, Efrain Garza has more than 20 years of experience creating and implementing new school systems.
Most recently, he was the executive director of student support for the South Texas Independent School District's Virtual Academy, which opened in the fall of 2021, offering a full online curriculum for students in grades 6 through 9.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.