A 'Last Chance'
Kayla Spires dreams of being a Park Ranger. “It’s just about the most perfect job I could think of,” she says. “Caring for the environment. Looking after animals. I want to have a career where I love to go to work every day, and that I can retire from happy. I love being part of nature. Every sunset is different, you know?”
But Kayla’s dreams of college and a future career working in nature nearly didn’t happen. Suffering from crippling anxiety and “hopeless” at math, Kayla was pretty certain she would end up dropping out of school.
But all of that changed when she arrived at Bishop Hall Charter School in Thomasville, Georgia. At Bishop Hall, Kayla found a caring family of educators who were committed to her success, and a flexible, blended learning approach that allowed her to overcome her challenges and doubts.
Personalized Learning Paths
US students are graduating from high schools at a higher rate than ever before. The nation’s high school graduation rate hit 82% in 2013-2014, the highest level since the states adopted a new uniform way of calculating graduation rates five years ago.
However, while the vast majority of students in the US today are able to successfully realize their high school educational goals, there are still those, who like Kayla, are left behind. Struggling with a myriad of challenges, from mental health issues, to teen pregnancy and family discord, there are teens who simply fail to thrive in the traditional school system. Without the right kind of school setting and flexible programming tailored to their unique needs, these kids often become discouraged and drop out.
Established in 1999 to serve a “last chance” population of students living in Thomas County, Georgia, Bishop Hall provides a safe sanctuary for students who cannot survive in the mainstream. Focusing on the whole student and not just the academics, the school provides a non-traditional, highly personalized education pathway for high-risk students. Since opening its doors, more than 415 students, who would likely not have graduated from a traditional school, have been able to flourish and graduate thanks to Bishop Hall’s unique curriculum design and wrap-around services.
“Some students want to watch a video. Some want you to sit next to them and show them how. Others want to listen to the lesson. Brightspace allows for that varied content delivery.”
Marcus Parsley, Mathematics Instructor & Virtual Education Coordinator, Bishop Hall Charter School
“They all have stories,” says Bishop Hall Principal Chris Huckans of his students. “Some are required at home to help, or have to work. Others have suffered an illness or struggle with mental health issues. The reality is, if our school didn’t exist, these kids would likely have been lost to us.”
Huckans has spent his entire career working with high-risk kids. A founding teacher at Bishop Hall, he left a few years back to pursue a career in educational administration only to return two years ago to lead the charter school as its principal. “The place, the culture, the staff. We have a very special organization here at Bishop Hall. Kids are allowed to learn at their own pace and can learn experientially. The classrooms are small. Teachers really get to know their students. We like to say that once you are a Bishop Hall kid, you are always part of the family.”
Part of what makes students successful at Bishop Hall is the ability to learn at their own speed using personalized learning pathways that allow them to shine and demonstrate their abilities. This approach is made possible through Bishop Hall’s use of the Brightspace learning management system.
“The plan was always to be cutting edge here at the school. This applies to our staff. They are all very determined, strong-willed people who are passionate about seeing every child succeed and graduate,” says Huckans. “Our use of Brightspace allows them to innovate and experiment. For instance, our business teacher, Brandi Miranda, has six different ways for a student to demonstrate their learning, including most recently a sports franchise project.”
More than Just another Face
and personalized paths are key aspects of learning at Bishop Hall Charter School. Students often come to the school already behind, so giving them a variety of ways to express their learning in their own individualized way helps build their confidence and keeps them engaged.
“We try very hard to find the student where they are, simplify content and yet still meet the state standard,” says Marcus Parsley, Bishop Hall Charter School mathematics instructor and virtual education coordinator. “Some students want to watch a video. Some want you to sit next to them and show them how. Others want to listen to the lesson. Brightspace allows for that varied content delivery. Many of our students have Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and the platform makes our job as teachers much easier, because we can offer students a learning path tailored to their unique needs.”
For Kayla, the personalized, blended learning style coupled with some intensive tutoring at school has allowed her to overcome her anxiety which was triggered by large classrooms, make up lost ground in math and reduce her school absences due to outside family commitments.
“Some days I just can’t get to school – I’m living with a family of seven right now and it’s just crazy. But on Mondays and Wednesdays I log into school from home using D2L to work on my senior year project. And when I’m at school I work on math with my tutor from 8:30 a.m. until 12 p.m., to make up all my courses so I can graduate. It’s the perfect balance. The blended program is just wonderful. Everything is at your fingertips. I have Wi-Fi, and my Chromebook, and Brightspace. Everything is right there, very organized. I find I can get twice as much done from home.”
With the help of her tutor and Brightspace, Kayla is in grade 12 and on track to graduate from Bishop Hall this year, ready to pursue college and a career path as a Park Ranger. “When I got to Bishop Hall, all I could think about was dropping out. My teachers, my principals had given up on me. I literally had every math course to make up. Coming to Bishop Hall made all the difference. You aren’t another face to them. The teachers are compassionate and really care. And you can go at your own pace. Everything’s changed now.”
 Data courtesy of Bishop Hall Charter School