LISD discusses online courses, restorative discipline

LTJ intern Celeste Gracia models Lewisville ISD's Virtual Online Academy. (Photo illustration by Leopold Knopp)

The Lewisville ISD Board of Trustees heard updates on the district’s virtual learning academy and restorative disciplinary practices during a work session Tuesday, Oct. 23. District officials personally implementing them discussed the successes and potential pitfalls of these relatively young programs.

Virtual Learning Academy

Directors of virtual learning Donna Henry and Chris Bigenho, as well as assessment director Sarah Fitzhugh, said that the Virtual Learning Academy is filling many of its intended purposes and ready to expand, but student awareness will be key for continued growth. The Virtual Learning Academy is LISD’s hub for online class offerings.

The trio reported that the Virtual Learning Academy now boasts more than 1,800 students across 15 courses, all of which are developed in-house by LISD personnel. This is important because, while online courses already exist elsewhere, courses developed in-house can be offered to LISD students for free. Courses purchased through the statewide Texas Virtual Schools Network can cost upward of $300 to enroll in. Henry said 87 other charter schools and school districts across Texas use LISD-designed courses.

Henry said students who took online courses were performing better in the relevant subject, but were less likely to take AP tests. Fitzhugh said LISD students were surveyed as to why they signed up for the online courses. 35 percent of students said they wanted to work more on their own time, and 28 percent wanted to open up their schedule, which Fitzhugh said was in line with the primary reasons for why the virtual learning academy was created.

The main hole in the program was awareness. The courses are open to LISD high school and middle school students — though only high-school level courses are offered — Henry and Bigenho say enrollment is low, particularly at Hebron High School. Fitzhugh questioned whether or not students were fully aware that the courses were available to them. Board member Jenny Proznik said firmly that they were not.

“My daughter was there four years, I never knew it was available to her there while she was there,” Proznik said. “I knew about it, I’ll be blunt, because I was on the board and I had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Henry.”

Bigenho said that the next steps for the academy would be to expand its course catalogue further, particularly with courses in Spanish and other languages, and hopefully prepare to offer a full-time online credit option in the future.

Superintendent Kevin Rogers said offering online courses is an essential job for the district.

“This is their better way of learning for some kids,” Rogers said. “And we know that in their future, they’ll be asked to learn this way whether its at college for for other venues.”

Restorative Discipline

The board also heard an update on its restorative discipline practices from student services director Rebecca Clark. Restorative discipline practices were adopted by the district two years ago in order to add more options to deal with poor behavior. The practices involve talking through behavior with students with a greater emphasis on understanding rule violations than simply punishing them.

Clark emphasized repeatedly that restorative discipline is not intended as a replacement for traditional methods, and includes several proactive methods of community building and framing rule-breaking behavior as an act of disrespect toward that community. The methods she discussed included talking over how poor behavior affected peers and agreement on a classroom behavior contract, a sort of covenant between the students themselves on how they treat each other.

Clark also discussed some teachers involving a special greeting at the start of class to put students in the particular frame of mind associated with that class. These ranged from special high-fives given to every student as they walk in to handing out awful puns to every student and seeing who could perform them the most creatively at the beginning of class.

Clark said this sort of community building, making students feel like they’re a part of a community that they don’t want to disrespect, is the core of restorative discipline. She said that while the practices are not a magic wand and do not replace traditional discipline methods, they work much better for some students.

“We know that students have to feel part of a community, otherwise they’re not going to engage in the way we want,” Clark said. “If we have a kid, and you’ve suspended him five times, and nothing has changed, what is that sixth time going to do?”

Board member Katherine Sells said discipline practices that focus on reminding students that they’re all on the same team are vital.

”I’m not in favor of anything that tears down our kids,” she said. “For whatever reason, education kind of swung to the pendulum of zero tolerance being so non-tolerant that we allowed our kids to believe that it was us against them in some manners.”