I Have Cut and Cut and Cut. Now What? Another Idea for Balancing the Budget While Expanding Course Offerings

Colin Ripmaster's picture

Six years ago, I attended an online learning symposium sponsored by the Michigan Virtual University (MVU) at Michigan State University. During this symposium, I heard about the power and possibilities of online learning. At that time, I saw the potential of expanding the world view of our students and became interested in offering Mandarin Chinese to the students of the school I served. Following this symposium, I decided to start offering a few online courses through Michigan Virtual School (MVS), specifically Mandarin Chinese. The first year we offered courses through MVU we had 24 students enroll in Chinese I and a few students enroll in an AP course that they weren’t able to take at our school given scheduling conflicts.

Soon after initiating the use of online courses through MVU/MVS, Mattawan Schools, like many other districts across the state, started to respond to the impact of the recession, as work and students started leaving the state. I remember sitting with my Superintendent and being told to find a way to cut up to $1 million from the high school budget. After cutting what many refer to as “low-hanging fruit,” I realized there was more that needed to be cut in order to reach the reduction target. As I reviewed the budget with our leadership team, it became clear that the only way we were going to realize the reductions necessary to balance the budget was through the reduction in staff.

After much research and deliberation, and against the wishes of the teaching staff and education association, I elected to increase the use of MVS within the school. In doing so, we were able to increase academic programming at a significantly reduced expense. We initially increased enrollment in MVS from 28 students taking 63 semester courses (yearlong courses count as 2 semester courses) to nearly 100 students taking 228 semester courses in the second year. As the recession continued to impact school funding and leadership changed in Lansing, like many of you, we had to cut further.

Over the course of the past five years, despite enrollment at the school growing approximately 200 students, staffing has been reduced by 7 teaching FTE. The overall average class size increased from 24.3 to 31.6 students, with some class sizes as high as 63 (i.e., psychology) in order to preserve intervention programs. Despite theses cuts in staffing and increased enrollment, Mattawan High School (MHS) was able to increase the number of course offerings available through the use of MVS with over 300 students taking 643 semester courses this year.

Initially, I was concerned about the results of students taking online classes on our overall achievement, as measured by the PLAN and ACT. The good news for MHS was that despite the increased class size, reduction in funding, and expanded use of MVS, we were able to reduce our failure rate, while increasing our ACT Composite score 2.5 pts, English 2.6 pts., Reading 2.2 pts., Math 2.6 pts., Science 1.6 pts., and Writing 3.4 pts, as well as increasing the percent of juniors meeting the college readiness benchmarks in all four core areas by 16%.

As you consider strategies to reduce expenditures, while maintaining course offerings and improving student achievement, I encourage you to consider the use of MIVHS and/or other online and blended learning content providers. Partnering with MVs is a win-win scenario, in which your students gain access to hundreds of core, elective and advanced placement courses at a fraction of the cost of traditional courses, fulfill the online learning requirement in its purest form, experience what it takes to work in a flexible and virtual environment, learn to organize materials and manage time without a teacher present, as well as providing your school a vehicle for the “Any Time, Any Place, Any Way, Any Pace” public school learning model that the Governor Snyder has called for.

How Do You Make this Work?

Implementation of online learning at the local level ranges from a paraprofessional and administrator (certified teacher) to multiple certified teachers overseeing learning labs. Schools have used online learning for credit recovery, alternatives to traditional summer school, approved pathways to accelerate credit attainment in order to dual enroll or graduate early, provide on-demand learning interventions, and supplement and/or supplant traditional course offerings.

At Mattawan High School, online learning was used to expand course offerings and provide an alternative to traditional summer school. During the school year, a paraprofessional is assigned to oversee the online learning lab. The online learning lab is the former computer lab in MHS’s Media Center. The paraprofessional is equipped with “Lanschool” in order to view all of the students’ monitors as they work. In addition, the paraprofessional is assigned as the secondary mentor in order to view the students’ gradebooks. The paraprofessional is scheduled to work from 7:30 am - 3:00 pm (school hours are 7:45-2:40). The primary mentor assigned to the students is a dean of students (MHS doesn’t have AP’s).

At the beginning of each semester, the paraprofessional and dean of students provide an orientation to the students specific to MHS’s expectations, protocols, and procedures for online learning, how to log in, communicate with their online instructor and school personnel, etc. On a daily basis the paraprofessional monitors student engagement, addresses issues, and serves as a liaison to the administration, as well as MVS. On a weekly basis, the paraprofessional checks every students progress in their gradebook, and notes progress and concerns in a google doc that is shared with the administration. The dean of students, based on the progress monitoring of the paraprofessional, sends out an email once a week to students about their progress (click here to view sample form emails). Students are expected to respond to the emails to confirm receipt and address any questions, concerns and/or deficiencies (this fulfills the pupil accounting requirements for state aid). Students who are not making progress are expected to stay after school until 3:45 pm, Monday through Thursday. Once a student is caught up or ahead s/he is no longer required to stay after school for additional work time. As an incentive and space accommodation, students who demonstrate sufficient progress and responsibility in their online courses are permitted to complete their coursework without reporting to school.

Cost of Online Learning

The cost of running this program at MHS is approximately $11/hr for the paraprofessional (no benefits), $225/semester for each course (Consortium Pricing), the reallocation of a computer lab as a dedicated learning space, and the time of the administrator to send emails to the students. The total cost this year at MHS is less than $165,000 for the courses and $15,000 in wages for the paraprofessional for a total of approximately $180,000 in programming vs. the approximately $375,000 it would have costed the district if those students were in traditional classrooms (643 * $585 base foundation allowance per course given a 6-period-day schedule).

Sample Student Emails.pdf31.16 KB