Oregon school district finds transformation in 'Flex' program


Hermiston is a small school district in rural northeastern Oregon that thinks big about blended learning.

At Hermiston High School, the only secondary school in the district — the other seven are middle or elementary schools — tech-savvy teachers have implemented what they call the Flex program, which partially replaces lecture-based learning with a combination of online courses from Fuel Education and teacher-curated supplemental materials for instruction. Flex classes presently include a senior-level English class, two U.S. government classes and one U.S. history class.

One unique aspect of the program is that students are not always required to attend class. Teachers allow time away from the classroom based on student progress and needs. While students are working on the online courses at their own pace, they can use their Flex time to complete other projects, such as their work portfolio, one of the school’s requirements for graduation.

Joshua Browning, one of the teachers who launched Flex at Hermiston, said the goal of the program is to foster independence and individual responsibility, and prepare them for life after graduation.

“We saw the writing on the wall,” said Browning, now the school district’s full-time online coordinator, in an interview. “We saw that colleges and businesses were becoming more and more dependent on technology and internet-based education, so we wanted to prepare them for their futures in the workplace and in post-secondary schools.”

About 300 of Hermiston High’s nearly 1,700 students are participating in Flex. The program is currently limited to juniors and seniors but Flex coordinators may offer it to students in lower grade levels in the future, Browning told EdScoop.

Flex students are given a sticker that displays their Flex periods, Browning said. “They often put it on their phone case,” he said. “They have the sticker so when they’re out and about during that [Flex] period, they have permission to be moving around in the school and they can leave campus as well during that time.”

The program is constantly evolving. “It’s definitely still in the pilot stage,” Browning said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever be in situation where were not testing the boundaries. Because we’re going to look at expanding it to lower grades, we’ll have to pilot that as well, so it’s always going to be in that testing stage. We’re dabbling in this and that and seeing what works well and what doesn’t.”

Unlike other blended learning models some schools have adopted, the Flex program requires only minimal classroom adjustments, such as rearranging desks. Instead of rows of desks, Flex classrooms use elementary and middle school classroom best practices, such as utilizing small learning stations and sharing Chromebook carts.

“Students love the freedom and the fact that this college-like atmosphere requires them to be more responsible for their learning,” said Mindy Barron, guidance and career coordinator for the school district. “It has also changed the way these teachers plan for their classes since they are putting so much thought into what they do with class time. They’re transforming to meet students’ needs.”

Flex students use their own devices to access online courses when working away from school, Browning said. “If they chose to, we have an open lab here at the high school that is reserved for students taking online electives. … The kids who are involved in Flex have access to this lab, so they can just walk in and show their Flex sticker.”

Browning said the benefits of the Flex program so far are clear. “The kids who really thrived in the system were the ones who were ready to be independent,” he said. “They already had some responsibility. They had school figured out, they did the work and they did it ahead of time.”

He added that “another group that benefited greatly were the kids who hadn’t been given a lot of responsibility and independence in their pasts. Once they got to the point where they had that independence, they felt like they had earned it. I think there was a great deal of pride and personal growth.”

Hermiston’s use of online coursework does not end with the Flex program. About 180 juniors and seniors are taking FuelEd online electives such as Latin, computer science, criminology, fashion design and philosophy. These students can do their coursework in the computer lab during their designated class period. They can also work on the coursework at home, which gives them the flexibility to work on other projects during their electives class period, if needed.

This is the first year the high school has offered online electives, and 80 percent of the students successfully passed their online courses, Barron said.

“We want every student to take at least one online course,” she said. “It prepares them for post-secondary life because it helps foster independence.”

Hermiston was one of five school districts across the country to receive Fuel Education 2017 Transformation Awards for expanding online course offerings, promoting independence and meeting unique student needs with its blended learning program.