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Lucia Mar Unified School District opens K-12 independent study school during pandemic 

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Watching her oldest daughter toil to spell her name correctly in kindergarten, Melissa Walker-Scott knew something wasn't right.

"You have no idea, she was a kindergartner, and she was spelling her whole name backwards. And she was still doing it in first grade," Walker-Scott said, adding that teachers attributed it to being left-handed, which Walker-Scott knew couldn't be right. "And they think you're crazy."

click to enlarge ONE-ON-ONE Students (photo taken pre-pandemic) enrolled at Pacific View Academy, an independent study school, get at least an hour of time with their teacher every week to make sure they're staying on track. - PHOTO COURTESY OF LUCIA MAR UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT
  • Photo Courtesy Of Lucia Mar Unified School District
  • ONE-ON-ONE Students (photo taken pre-pandemic) enrolled at Pacific View Academy, an independent study school, get at least an hour of time with their teacher every week to make sure they're staying on track.

Eventually, her daughter got tested for dyslexia. Even with the diagnosis, Walker-Scott said, the Santa Monica school system they were a part of didn't help much. The family had to hire tutors to work with their daughter outside of school. When Walker-Scott's daughter was a freshman in high school, they moved to SLO County where she started attending Arroyo Grande High School.

Her daughter excelled in sign language, culinary science, and theater, because all are very tactile, but she was still struggling with math and English. After a couple of sit-down meetings, they found out that independent study was a possible pathway.

"At first, she was a little embarrassed," Walker-Scott said. "But it ended up being a life-saver for her."

Walker-Scott's daughter became part of the Pacific Valley Academy's first graduating class of students this past spring. Lucia Mar Unified School District has had independent study programs for kindergarten through 12th grade for years, but in fall of 2020 the district opened Pacific Valley Academy (PVA), a K-12 independent study school in Arroyo Grande. Walker-Scott's daughter was part of PVA before it became PVA, she said, and the changes were noticeable within the first six months.

"I can't even tell you how her confidence was going up, she was achieving, she was getting A's, she had a 4.0 by the end of her junior year," Walker-Scott said. "She got into the college of her choice, and she gets to do things she never thought she would be able to do."

The reason she excelled in independent study was because she could spend the time necessary with the subjects she needed to. School days weren't made up of 50-minute class increments, where she would barely begin to wrap her mind around a class topic when the bell would ring. She could spend hours or days on a concept if she was struggling. Independent study allowed her to learn in the way that worked for her.

But independent study isn't for everyone. Students need to be self-motivated, able to manage their time, and they have to work within a less structured environment. Walker-Scott's youngest daughter attended PVA when schools were teaching virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it wasn't a good fit, she said.

Jennifer Bowen, principal of alternative schools and programs at Lucia Mar, said while it had been a plan for quite some time to start an accredited K-12 school for independent study, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the school's progress into overdrive.

"When March [2020] hit and we knew it was going to push into the following school year, we knew that asynchronous-style learning was going to be more desirable," said Bowen, who oversees Lopez High School, PVA, and the district's adult education. "At one point we were up to about 600 students, which was the third largest school in the district."

Synchronous and asynchronous learning are styles of education that the pandemic brought into everyday language. Synchronous learning happens in the classroom—and virtually, when students are logged on, learning, and interacting with classmates and their teacher. Independent study is largely asynchronous, with weekly and daily check-ins with teachers and fellow students, where synchronous learning can happen.

During the 2020-21 school year, some families tried independent study as an alternative to virtual learning, not realizing how rigorous it was, Bowen said. The number of students tapered off to about 525 as parents and students discovered that it was a style of learning that didn't work for them.

"Students have to be pretty self-motivated and disciplined," Bowen said. "Some students need more support to be that independent."

Usually, Bowen said, the independent study program starts with about 50 or 60 students and grows throughout the school year to 100 or 120. Students have a tendency to come and go from the program, she said. If a student experiences a bad injury or family emergency, for instance, and can't physically attend school on campus, they may do independent study for three months and then go back to campus.

But July 2020 was a little "crazy-making," said Joeli Martin, assistant principal of alternative education. PVA had 700 applications in three weeks. Although PVA expected an influx of high school students, there was a rush of applications for K-6 students as well.

"So basically, we were just trying to—What does my friend always say?—build the plane while you're flying it. It became a really attractive option for a lot of people in the district," Martin said. "Fortunately, we were able to hire people and train them quickly. ... But growing pains for sure."

Everything was taught virtually in 2020-21—which isn't usually the case, even for independent study students, who have in-person check-ins with their teachers as well as in-person classroom labs. For those who had completed independent learning before, the transition to all virtual was fairly easy. But for new students, there was a little bit of a learning curve, Martin said.

"There's this misconception that teachers won't be paying attention and that they can slack off a little bit, and that's not really the case," Martin said. "Sometimes it involves having a really tough discussion about whether independent study is the right kind of learning environment for that student."

A recent bill, passed in July 2021, changes some of the requirements for independent study programs in the state of California and mandates all school districts to offer students a virtual independent study option for the 2021-22 school year. Most local school districts already offer independent study programs.

Martin said the hours of synchronous learning now required differ by grade level: Kindergarten through third grade students have to attend one hour of synchronous learning every day with a one-hour one-on-one meeting with the teacher every week. Grades four through eight require daily interactions with the whole class, one hour of synchronous learning every week, and one hour of one-on-one time with the teacher. And ninth through 12th grades require synchronous opportunities for learning as well as weekly check-ins.

"If this pandemic taught us anything, it's that we can be flexible and we can be adaptable," Martin said. "In education overall, it's been wonderful, and it's just opened our eyes to different ways of doing things." Δ

Reach Editor Camillia Lanham at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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