Kamryn Beckstead, a senior at Meridian Academy, sat on a stool near social studies teacher Jake Chandler brushing up on the life of Theodore Roosevelt.
They carefully reviewed a quiz. Chandler tossed her the questions. Beckstead wrestled with answers and acknowledged that history is a bit of struggle for her.
Her work with Chandler is making a difference. “It actually helps, getting one-on-one time with somebody who actually knows what they are doing,” said Beckstead, 17.
Personal time with a teacher is a key part of a new approach to teaching students at Meridian Academy and West Ada School District’s other two academies, Central and Eagle. All of them are alternative schools, taking students who have slipped behind in their schoolwork or struggled to fit into the larger, traditional schools.
525 Number of students enrolled in West Ada alternative high schools
West Ada’s alternative schools got a $131,050 grant from the state to put in place a program that emphasizes students learning a subject thoroughly before moving on. The concept is called mastery, making proficiency in the subject the measure of success, ahead of time spent in class or the number of courses taken. Students get credit for the subject once they score at least 70 percent on the material they are learning.
The experiment to establish an education system based on mastery of knowledge is unfolding in a handful of Idaho classrooms. A total of 19 schools or districts have received state grants totaling $1.35 million this year.
Mastery was one of the goals of Gov. Butch Otter’s 2012-2013 task force to improve education, created after Idaho voters overturned a series of school reforms the Legislature enacted in 2011. Mastery is backed by businesses that say students need a thorough grounding in learning without gaps in their knowledge.
At Meridian Academy, students learn via mixed techniques, some computer-based and some directly from teachers. School bells are gone. The day isn’t based on a schedule of classes that last 60 or 90 minutes. The key: Each student has a personalized course of instruction that outlines the knowledge they need to learn and the gaps they need to fill.
Those gaps can be profound. Some students come to the alternative high school with math or English skills that are on the fourth- to sixth-grade level, said Principal Dustin Barrett.
Traditional classes that focus on time in class and credits accumulated is being replaced by a system that emphasizes concepts and understanding. The old system, said Eian Harm, who oversees West Ada’s alternative schools, led to frustration and contributed to the alternative school’s paltry 30 percent graduation rate.
There was a “cycle of repeating the same courses,” Harm said. Students would “end up disliking the whole thing and many would drop out.”
Mastery is forcing an essential shift in education at Meridian Academy. Students are being pushed out of the role of passive learners — listening to a teacher, taking homework assignment from a teacher — to forging their own way through material.
“They have to be active learners,” Barrett said.
We are trying to build a system where time is the variable but learning becomes the constant.
Dustin Barrett, Meridian Academy principal
They work on their own, often in a commons area and not a desk in a classroom. Students can go to the commons area and work at their own pace. But keeping students on track is proving a challenge that Meridian Academy is facing in its first year of the mastery experiment.
Some students see benefits in the new approach.
“What I like is that we can do things at our own pace,” said James Macho, 17, who has all A’s this term. “It allows me to feel more responsible for my education.”
Jeremiah Simms, 17, sees a drawback. “With the online thing, there needs to be a lot of self-motivation and (the desire) to do the work,” he said. “Sometimes I just don’t want to do the work, and when I don’t it just all piles up.”
MENTORS SWOOP IN
That’s when teachers like Chandler, the social studies instructor, step in. Like other teachers, Chandler mentors several students. Mentors meet at least weekly with students to go over their work and see how they are progressing.
If a student is slipping or not doing their work “the mentor should swoop in there like gangbusters,” Harm said. “That is what the challenge is right now: How we get (students) engaged.”
Mentors do more than serve as an academic traffic cop.
They develop close relationships with students who understand someone is supporting them. “The relationship with the mentor is probably what makes ... our system work,” said Chandler. “We are here for them.”
Mentoring is “awesome,” Simms said. “You pick a teacher you get along with. You go in there once a week ... and tend to discuss with him personally how it is going.”
For Beckstead, the mentor relationship goes deeper than education. “We talk about things and try to get things to work out,” Beckstead said. “He is not just like a teacher.”
Idaho’s mastery experiment
Nineteen Idaho schools or districts getting state grants to develop mastery programs are expected to provide data and share how other schools can implement similar programs.
American Heritage Charter School, Idaho Falls, $55,500
Atlas School, Middleton, $38,500
Clark Fork Junior-Senior High School, $114,600
Kuna School District, $70,000
Meadow Valley School District, $68,000
Meridian Technical Charter High School, $66,200
Moscow School District, $140,000
Nampa School District, $57,500
North Valley Academy Charter School, Gooding, $55,500
Notus School District, $60,170
Rivervue Academy, Vallivue School District, $46,500
Rocky Mountain Middle School, Idaho Falls, $62,335
Salmon Junior-Senior High School, $92,500
Silver Creek Alternative High School, Hailey, $50,500
Three Creek School District, Rogerson, $28,345
Union High School, Nampa, $36,500
Venture High School, Coeur d’Alene, $52,200
West Ada acadamies, West Ada School District, $131,050
Wilder School District, $124,100
Source: Idaho State Department of Education