Voices from the Idaho EdNews Community

The next frontier in Idaho school choice — learning societies

At Gem Prep public charter schools, we have been running a pilot program this fall, based on lessons learned during the pandemic, that has the potential to change the face of education in Idaho; indeed across the country.

That’s a bold statement, to be sure, but that’s how excited we are by the two Learning Society pilots we have been running in Emmett and Lewiston. And we know of nothing else quite like this program anywhere else in the nation.

Learning Societies are a unique blend of a micro-school and a ‘pandemic pod,’ operating under the umbrella of an online public charter school. They provide families with the rigor and flexibility of our college prep virtual charter school coupled with the camaraderie and community atmosphere found in our brick and mortar schools.

Many families learned during the Covid-19 school shutdowns that overseeing their children’s online schooling was almost a full-time job. While some parents have the time and temperament to do this, many have demanding work schedules that make it difficult for them to closely supervise their children’s schoolwork.

Some families also discovered that their children thrived in an online learning environment, and wanted to find a way to continue that, but without the time demands placed on the adults in a household.

That’s the niche our Learning Societies fill. In Emmett and Lewiston, we have paid, trained educators working with small groups of students who are enrolled in our virtual public charter school. Students gather under adult supervision and spend much of their day working independently on their computers, instructed virtually by certified Gem Prep Online teachers.

The Learning Societies also provide opportunities for students to receive direct instruction in small groups from the on-site Leaders. Students also get to interact with and learn from one another, rather than working at home in isolation.

Parents still have the opportunity to work with their students on homework assignments, and to stay engaged in our curriculum and how it is delivered. They are also welcome to volunteer in our Learning Society classrooms.

We see Learning Societies as a win-win-win scenario. The first winners are parents, who can confidently enroll their children in Idaho’s best online public charter school program, secure in the knowledge that they are being safely supervised and having their learning enhanced by our site-based Leaders. Parents reap many of the benefits of homeschooling or online learning without the full-time supervision burden.

The second winners are the students, who get the best of three worlds – top flight online education, in-person support and professional learning assistance, and peer interaction.

The third winners are communities across Idaho where parents are seeking options for their children that are neither homeschooling; nor traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms for six-plus hours each day. This model is especially powerful for more rural families who have few if any school choice options beyond traditional online learning.

What’s required to launch a Gem Prep Learning Society? A group of parents ready to enroll their children, a qualified Leader (or two, depending on the number of students enrolled) to oversee the program, and an affordable and appropriate space to host the Learning Society.

In Emmett that space is a VFW hall that goes unused on weekdays. In Lewiston, it’s Sunday school classrooms in a local church.

Even in this pilot year, when we’re learning as we go and working out kinks, parents have been overwhelmingly positive about the experiences their children are having. “It’s really incredible. The progress is so obvious,” one Learning Society mother in Emmett said. “It’s just hitting you in the face every day. Our kids are really thriving.”

We have numbers to back up this mother’s perceptions of kids thriving in our Learning Societies.  From September to December, 73% of our students grew at least 5% in reading, while 71% of students grew at least 5% in math during that same window. Students who joined our program with the most significant academic gaps had some of our largest growth. 46% of students started the year in the lowest tier for reading, indicating that they were significantly below grade level. Over the course of the semester that number shrunk to only 17% remaining in the lowest tier, with the rest moving up, indicating they are approaching or at grade level.

Based on what we have observed this year, we are eager to expand our Learning Society program next school year. Please contact Adam Bruno ([email protected]) if you think your community is ready to host one of our Learning Societies.

We are confident that in the near future, our Learning Societies will be educating children in communities across Idaho. We invite you to become part of this exciting new approach to learning.

Adam Bruno is the Director of Federal Programs and Assessment and the Learning Societies Administrator for Gem Innovation Schools.


Adam Bruno

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