Co-Teaching Across Geography to Create Opportunities for Rural Students

March 12th 2019

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Executive Summary

Dove Creek High School and Middle School, in Dolores County School District 2, wants to give its students the same opportunities found in large urban districts, but it struggles to attract quality teachers to its rural location that can teach all the subjects of interest to students.  To address this, it has paired a local teacher with a virtual teacher to co-teach core classes such as pre-algebra, Algebra I and II, and pre-calculus for students in grades 8-12. As a result, students can now graduate having completed more advanced coursework, better prepared for success in college.  In addition, to support students’ Individual Career and Academic Plans (ICAP), the district further leverages supplemental courses supported by Colorado Empowered Learning.  These allow students the opportunity to explore their specific interests, emphasizing the connection between school and their futures.

About the District

Dolores County School District RE 2, Small Rural, PK-12, Dove Creek, Colorado, 225 Students

The Idea

Allowing a local teacher to co-teach a course with a virtual teacher in core subject matter areas can ensure that student needs are met in regions where a teacher shortage would otherwise limit student opportunities.  Similarly, guidance counselors who might otherwise struggle to find students learning opportunities that support their Individual Career and Academic Plans (ICAP) can leverage supplemental courses with virtual teachers to create these opportunities.

How it Works

Co-Teaching

  • Identify a Subject Matter Area:  Dove Creek was concerned that its students did not have the basic math skills required by grade level standards and for future success.  Broadly, math teachers were too overburdened with planning and grading to help students catch up. As a result, math seemed like an ideal candidate for the co-teaching model, although it certainly could be applied to other areas.

  • Define the Role of the Virtual Teacher:  The virtual teacher delivers the supplemental courses supported by the Colorado Empowered Learning program to ensure that the curriculum aligns with state standards, while providing support on grading, lesson plans, prep work, and tutorials.  

  • Define the Role of the Local Teacher:  The teacher in the classroom pulls the lessons and either projects them on the board or has students access them from their computers.  The teacher then teaches the materials to the class, addressing areas of confusion based on student needs. The local teacher can focus on strong teaching instead of preparation and grading, differentiating instruction across the class and thus improving the overall quality of learning for students.

  • Select the Right Teacher:  Co-teaching necessarily involves the local teacher giving up some control, working collaboratively with the virtual teacher to get what is needed for students.  Dove Creek deliberately selected teachers that were comfortable exploring this model.

  • Prepare Additional Supports for Students:  Learning virtually can be challenging for some students because it requires them to read more, follow directions better, do the homework, and ascertain what the virtual teacher is asking of them.  The local teacher should be prepared to support students as they transition to this format.

ICAP Support

  • Connect with Guidance Counselor:  Guidance counselors are already working with students on their Individual Career and Academic Plans (ICAP) and want to find learning opportunities for students aligned with these plans.  Simply making them aware of the supplemental courses, supported by Colorado State through the Colorado Empowered Learning program, will give them an additional resource with which to support students.  Once the right course for the student has been identified, enrollment is simple and as little as $135 per student.

  • Create a Dedicated Space: Dove Creek has set aside a room where the guidance counselor is in charge of all the online classes.  The guidance counselor checks in with the students weekly, encouraging them to complete their work, helping them where needed, coordinating with the virtual teacher, and looping in parents as appropriate. Kids report to this dedicated room when they are scheduled to work on their supplemental courses.  This space is used primarily in support of ICAP - if a student is taking an English or Math class, the school will make an effort to place them in the corresponding classroom so that they can receive support from the teacher with the most relevant content knowledge. In both cases, Dove Creek has found that having an adult present in the room helps to keep the students on track.

Purpose and Impact

Students Graduate Having Completed More Advanced Courses

Dove Creek is working to raise expectations throughout the school, working to move algebra down to the middle school so that students can graduate having completed higher level courses and prepared for college. One teacher, however, cannot possibly be expected to teach everything for pre-algebra to pre-calc.  With co-teaching, however, this is possible, and students will be able to graduate Dove Creek having completed more advanced coursework and better prepared for success in college, career and life.

Students Have the Supports Required for ICAP

The new Colorado state graduation requirements around the creation of Individual Career and Academic Plans (ICAP) generate student interest in a variety of subjects, many of which Dove Creek struggled to offer.  Student interests are so wide ranging that there simply would not be enough students to fill an entire class, and even if there were, finding a teacher with the knowledge to teach that class local to Dove Creek would be a challenge, assuming funding for that role could be found.  By leveraging the supplemental courses supported by the Colorado Empowered Learning program, however, Dove Creek was able to make these opportunities available. Moreover, because the supplemental program is structured in such a flexible manner, an interested student would not necessarily have to wait for a defined enrollment window to get started in pursuing their passions.

Teachers Can Focus on Rigor

Part of a small rural district, Dove Creek has found it challenging to obtain a viable curriculum aligned with state standards.  As a state-supported resource, the supplemental courses provided under Colorado Empowered Learning are of course aligned with state standards, so leveraging the content from these courses has allowed teachers to focus on raising the rigor and quality of learning experiences instead of curriculum development.  Even teachers initially skeptical of the co-teaching approach have come to see the value and have started requesting opportunities to teach additional courses in this format.

Lessons Learned

Not All Supplemental Programs are Created Equal

Dove Creek had previously worked with other online programs and found them to be inflexible.  They were very structured, requiring a specific progression and timing for the whole class. While there was a teacher on the back side, the teacher could only be contacted via email.  It was not possible to contact the teacher if students were struggling. As a result, in building staff would have to try to get students caught up. The staff would find many gaps in knowledge and students who were determined to get through the course however they could, often not learning the material.  The fact is that all kids do not score at the same level, so putting all kids through the same static course without supports, extensions, and modifications, simply does not meet their needs.

The supplemental program supported by Colorado Empowered Learning, however, is fundamentally different and significantly more flexible.  The virtual teacher is available by phone and in constant contact with the local teacher and willing to make adjustments to the pacing of the course and the content, accelerating where needed, adding and removing modules as requested, diving deeper into areas of particular confusion or interest.  Once Dove Creek switched to utilizing this resource, it was able to achieve its vision for co-teaching and blended learning.

Timing Matters, Create a Plan

Dove Creek began the co-teaching work in the middle of the school year and it would advise others not to do this unless absolutely necessary.  Superintendent Ty Gray would also recommend starting small, focusing on a specific subject or working with a specific teacher.  If you have other options, it is best to try not to do too much at once. “Communication with parents is key. Clearly articulate why you want to do this work, how you are going to improve your school, and the role of online if you already have a teacher.”  The messages that resonated with Dove Creek parents best were those that focused on local teachers providing support to students and holding them accountable. “Students can start drowning themselves before they know it if someone is not checking in on them.” The local teachers work with the virtual teachers to ensure students are able to thrive.