While 100 Warhill High School freshmen spent the last year learning physics and humanities in a new non-traditional format, they themselves were being studied.
For the inaugural year of Warhill's Pathways Project, an eight-person team of researchers from the College of William and Mary, which helped design the program, tracked the program's progress.
"I thought the first year was very successful. … We're excited about the results William and Mary was able to document," said Jeffery Carroll, Warhill's former principal who was promoted to assistant superintendent earlier this year. "I look forward to what we can come up with for year two."
The students volunteered for the pilot program — a four-year curriculum alternative to regular classes. The classes focused on capstone projects rather than exams and blended online and classroom instruction.
The program grew out of two $25,000 innovation grants from the state Department of Education and was designed in partnership with William and Mary's School of Education. A student zoned for any of the three high schools was eligible to take part — and 25 non-Warhill students did.
The one-year study results were largely positive, said Mark Hofer, a Pathways researcher and co-director of the college's Center for Innovation in Learning Design.
"From our perspective, the major findings would be the high level of student engagement in the program in terms of cognitive engagement with the content, the behavioral engagement and emotional engagement," Hofer said. "It far surpasses what you would find in public high schools today."
Carroll, Hofer and William and Mary assistant education professor Lindy Johnson presented the study results at the Williamsburg-James City County School Board's July 11 meeting.
2017-18: Pathways and more
A majority — 83 students — of that initial freshmen class is continuing into the program's second year, but less are joining as freshmen this time.
School spokeswoman Betsy-Overkamp Smith attributed the lower enrollment to Jamestown and Lafayette high schools piloting their own versions of Warhill's program. In February, the School Board took the planned expansion of Pathways to the other high schools out of the division's 2018 budget citing fiscal constraints.
Because planning was already underway, each school decided to pilot their own versions anyway — Linc5 at Lafayette and Concourse 9 at Jamestown.
"Pathways gave students an option to learn differently," Overkamp-Smith said. "Now students at the other two schools have the option to learn differently and be taught differently and do it at their home school."
Forty-three incoming freshmen at Lafayette and 43 at Jamestown have opted into the pilots while just over 40 are in Warhill's next Pathways class. Carroll said applications for Warhill's program are still rolling in but that administrators have planned for 50 students.
Some of those Warhill students are still opting in from out-of-zone. Five are from Lafayette's district and two from Jamestown's.
When the School Board approved a final 2018 budget May 16, it included $53,000 for laptops for each of the planned 100 new Pathways students. The laptops have been purchased, Overkamp-Smith said, but extras will be distributed to other schools or programs.
She said Linc 5 and Concourse 9 students will each have a laptop, though there wasn't additional funding allocated in the 2018 budget as there was for Warhill.
"Computers were found for the programs or are in the process of being found," Overkamp-Smith said. "These are computers that have been part of the refresh cycle, so they aren't brand new computers but they will have laptops."
Room for improvement
The one-to-one technology — where each student is given a laptop for the year — is important for the programs' blended learning. Pathways students can work at their own pace in an online program while having access to and guidance from a classroom teacher. The blended learning was also where many students struggled, according to the one-year report.
"One of the most innovative and challenging aspects for Pathways implementation centered on the integration of blended learning," the report stated. "Some of the challenges students experienced in the first semester of the blended courses may be mitigated with more substantive initial training with the school-issued laptop computers, and more importantly, the learning management system."
The William and Mary team surveyed students twice during the year and interviewed 10 students for more detailed answers. Students said they were overwhelmed by some of the blended learning assignments and time-management required. They said there was too little teacher support at times.
To that end, the fewer freshmen this year could be a benefit, Carroll said. Because students often worked individually and at their own pace, teachers were sometimes overseeing as many as 50 students at a time, according to the report.
The other common complaint — which many adults likely share — was group work, Hofer said.
"The change that was most different than traditional school would be the extent and duration and amount of group work," Hofer said. "The importance of them working well as a team was really enhanced in the pathways program."
But he said that's a challenge they anticipated. He said more preparation for it might be a solution, but he wouldn't scale back the group work.
Part of Pathways purpose is career-preparation, and teamwork is valuable to future employers, Hofer said.
He said the students knew that, too.
"That's one of the things that in the interviews they talked about — how it wasn't always easy working with a group, 'I learned better to work with people I might not like or want to work with, but I know it's important for my future,'" Hofer said.
The William and Mary team plans to track Linc 5 and Concourse 9 students in addition to the Pathways program, Hofer said. He expects first semester results will be ready by next year's spring budget discussions.
Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.