CharterFolk Contributor Kathleen Hermsmeyer – Flex-Based Schools Should be the Most Popular School Model in America Today. Why isn’t it?

Good morning, CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Dr. Kathleen Hermsmeyer, Superintendent for Springs Charter Schools.

I provide Kathleen’s bio below.

Dr. Kathleen Hermsmeyer founded California’s largest county-wide benefit charter school, River Springs, in 2005 and serves as the Superintendent of this charter, along with five other charters serving in total over 10,000 students. She has worked in education for the past 32 years in traditional urban public schools, international schools, and charters. 

Dr. Hermsmeyer earned her bachelor’s and master’s from California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo and her doctorate from University of the Pacific.

Dr. Hermsmeyer is passionate about preparing students to enter the changing global community through personalized learning, real-world applications, and rigorous mastery-based instruction.

Flex-Based Schools Should be the Most Popular School Model in America Today. Why isn’t it?

American school systems have single-mindedly tried to revert to pre-pandemic normal over these past two years, but today’s traditional classroom experience is anything but normal. There is an alarming level of absenteeism, academic regression, behavior issues, a widening achievement gap, and students leaving the school system entirely. According to David Brooks in his New York Times article America Should Be in the Middle of a Schools Revolution, “Today’s teachers and students are living with a set of altered realities, and they may be for the rest of their lives.

We have an epidemic of underperforming, disengaged students and parents who have little faith in the traditional school system. As an educator working in alternative charter school education in California since 1998, I have a solution – Flex-based School!

Flex-based schools, sometimes called ‘hybrid’ schools, support and engage families and students by giving them a more active role in their schooling, while at the same time allowing targeted support and acceleration for the personalized needs of each student. Flex schools allow students to attend a portion of their school hours in the classroom and a portion in the community or at home. The schedule is on a continuum, changing based on the needs of the student at each era of their life – infinitely flexible.

Here are Three Examples:

Serena is a junior golfer getting ready for her first major event. The flex schedule allows her to play 18 holes every morning and then attend classes in the afternoon and do independent study in the evenings.

Shane works eight hours a week during the school day as an engineering and robotics intern, creating machinery made to specs for competition and troubleshooting. He gets career technical credit for this work.

Elias is in class three days per week and home with his mom two days a week where he works on personalized online and paper/pencil assignments. On at-home days he participates in small group Zoom lessons and has a conferencing session with his instructional coach. His assignments are targeted to his specific needs to accelerate his progress.

With even grandparents jumping on Zoom, people dumping traditional TV for streaming networks, and the widespread availability of devices and internet, I’ve been dumbfounded that post-pandemic society has mostly accepted the return to the jail of “30-in-a-cell-with-a-bell” traditional five-day classroom model. I was happily anticipating an accelerated timeline to all schools implementing some version of flex-based school. That has not happened.

Since most public schools want to keep school going the old way, the private school market has been quick to jump on the need for more flexible schooling. Hybrid models such as microschools and pods have risen in prominence throughout the country. This rise has prompted the National Hybrid School Project, headed up by director Eric Wearne from Kennesaw State University in Georgia. In their recent national survey, they found more than 300 different models of hybrid schools across the nation, and this is growing. Some schools are independent and others are members of networks including the University-Model Schools and Aquinas Learning Centers.

But I know we can provide flexible options within our public school system. Every student deserves personalized, flexible choices, even those who can’t afford private school tuition. In the words of Marcellus, a high school student at a hybrid program, “Before I started here, I had to just get through the school day, you know, bide my time, until I could do the things that interested me. I wanted to do my own reading, explore my music, do my athletics. Now, I can plan out assignments with my teacher that mixes what she needs with what I want.”

It’s time to trade the old school with a new school flexible model where all students can succeed and chase their dreams during the school day instead of waiting for school to get out to do their real learning during their real life. 

Here are Five Reasons Why Flex-Based Schools’ Time Has Come:

1. Each Student Gets a Personalized Path.

Some students will not need the entire five hours each week to complete their history work, while others will need double that for math, yet in a traditional factory-model school, every child gets exactly the same amount of time on the same assignments. Flex students are able to rewatch lessons as many times as necessary to understand the content and do as many practice problems as they need. 

New electronic tracking tools provide as effective support as one-on-one live classroom support provides. Teachers can keep track of standards mastery and work completed so children always have meaningful work to do. Fortunately, technology allows us to make the classroom and community days seamless with integrated assignments and collaboration in real time.

2. Flex Schools Allow Students to Follow Their Passions.

Students have the ability to learn the skills of their grade level through a variety of content that’s interesting to them, while also participating in community groups, sports, and activities without having the rigid time block that limits their schedule. When students are working on focused assignments without the distraction of other students’ behavior, progress on core academics can be quicker allowing time for enriching and motivating exploration. In addition, students can opt-in to book groups based on interests across the entire school network instead of just their class. They can partner-up virtually and/or in person with those who have similar interests for hands-on projects and seek help from mentors across the country and the world. This freedom to choose is associated with increased motivation and engagement across all age groups and levels of learning. Read a great Edutopia article about the motivation of choice here.

3. Flex Students are Empowered to be in the Driver’s Seat of Their Own Journey.

Flex students learn how they learn best because they are called upon to spend some of their time learning alone. They have intentional conversations with instructional mentors on methods of learning so they can learn better. These skills will continue to support their growth and development long after their compulsory schooling is over. Flex kids learn to manage time because they actually have time to manage. Generally, in typical traditional schools, students spend every moment of their class time subscribed in specific work. In fact, according to Stephen K. Graham, prisoners have more freedom of choice than typical school children. So, after spending 13+ years being micromanaged seven hours each day, we wonder why high school graduates get to college and fail to thrive? The only way to teach these skills of time management and independent learning is to give students time to manage themselves and learn on their own. An important part of empowering students is to help them reflect on their learning process. This video shows how our teachers help students think about their learning at all ages.

4. Flex Schools are Kinder and More Inclusive.

The flex model turns down the heat on the social pressure cooker that school can be by giving students real choices as to where and when they attend class and reducing the school and class size. In addition, the norms for online learning and the safeguards online classes require, ensure that more mindful and focused attention is given to social relationships in flex schools. Although the total number of students enrolled in the school may be large, the student’s world will be much smaller with small virtual groups and class groups creating a cozy tribe for learning and growing. 

For students with learning differences, flex-based schools can make all the difference between a student loving school or hating it. Some students can’t manage an entire day due to their disability and need more flexibility. Because we have many students doing many different schedules, no one looks upon students leaving class for speech or OT as odd. Our schools normalize the idea that students will take a differing amount of time to master each standard, so a culture of celebrating effort is established instead of simply celebrating achievement.

5. We Keep it Real.

Our students do real work, in the real world. Our classroom teachers provide a workshop for what the students will do on their community days. Our teachers take on the role of coach and facilitator, with the student actively engaged in planning the route to learning. This keeps it all real for our kids. They are working with community experts, doing internships, attending community college classes, launching community initiatives such as two of our entrepreneur students who combined the talents and resources of their small non-profit  businesses to begin a new venture providing toiletry kits for foster kids – all on school time. See their story here.

Although private flex models are happening all over the country, currently there are only a handful of states providing this in a public school setting. Meanwhile parents are making their frustration clear – we are trending to have the most disengaged citizenship our nation has ever seen. Flex-based schools are a solution to many of our nation’s education issues, providing the happy compromise of personalization, flexibility, and accountability needed to help students thrive.