Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Sep 11, 2018 – Click here for the Spanish version
A virtual school for grades 6-12 based in Hicksville, New York, Obridge Academy attracts many nontraditional students, including those with documented learning disabilities and accommodation needs. Due to its initiative to use technology to reach learners in need of differentiated instruction and support services in the virtual environment, the institution is among the winners of the 2018 Blackboard Catalyst Awards for Student Success.
Obridge Academy is a private personalized distance learning school where students who faced a variety of challenges at traditional brick-and-mortar institutions can attend a self-paced, AdvancEd accredited, diploma-granting program.
Some of its students have spectrum diagnoses, have endured bullying or equally substantial stressors, and others deal with depression, social anxiety, or mood disorders.
“We see every student as an individual who is entitled to learn at their own pace, with guidance from teachers and support staff when needed,” says Kristin Bestler, director of student services at Obridge Academy.
According to Bestler, Obridge’s program is best suited for learners who enjoy and succeed at working independently and is ideal for those who find that the regular school pace moves too quickly or too slowly through the curriculum.
The school now has approximately 30 students with a range of documented and disclosed learning differences. “Since our disability services are still very new, we hope to reach many more in the coming year,” says the director.
Through a recent initiative called the Accommodation Station, Obridge students are thriving, with enrollment and retention numbers on the rise.
“Student success is very important to us. Regardless of whether a student attends Obridge Academy for all of high school, one year, or even one course, we want to do our best in providing the support services that he or she needs in order to achieve their goals,” says Bestler.
Supporting All Students: The Accommodation Station
Although the school attracts many students with disabilities, it was soon discovered that retention for this student population can be a challenge and that support efforts could be improved. Despite the self-paced structure and convenient online platform, many learners showed indicators that additional support was needed.
Obridge courses have always been designed to be accessible and inclusive. They offered captions, enlarged and multicolored text content, and mixed media embedded in most modules.
However, something was still missing. The ‘personal touch’ that several of these students lacked in their home districts was something they were seeking in the online environment as well.
That’s when the Accommodation Station came in: a Blackboard Learn ‘course’ designed for students who have disclosed a disability and the need for support services.
The Accommodation Station provides students with access to request forms for Virtual Testing Accommodations, academic advisement and counseling sessions, and tutoring services, along with information on external resources that may benefit the students.
It also has a Discussion Board that allows the students to communicate with the support staff and with each other. A Student Spotlight tab allows students to share and showcase their success stories.
“The goal of Accommodation Station is to enhance student success, which is a result of a powerful combination of accommodation access, connection to the school and support staff, as well as a group of supportive peers,” says Bestler.
“Our most popular component so far is the Academic Advisement, scheduled face-to-face sessions during which the support staff discusses one-on-one with a student or parents an academic plan to get the student on track for course completions and grade improvement,” she adds.
Another Blackboard solution used at that the institution to support students is the web conferencing application Blackboard Collaborate.
“Blackboard Collaborate heavily influences our goal to provide student support. Students need to feel comfortable in order to ask for help, and most students feel comfortable when they connect a name with a face, making virtual sessions with a student so important for what we do,” says the director.
Fostering Student Success
Bestler believes that the school’s best practices in promoting student success include the ability to see each student as an individual and the use of personalized approaches for each learner.
“Our support staff is accustomed to supporting many different types of students with a variety of needs. Whenever we determine that there is a significant unmet need in our student population, we do our best to provide access to support services. We truly want each student to be successful and to reach his or her own academic goals,” she explains, adding that the dedication that is put towards supporting each student is definitely strong.
According to Bestler, the students that take the opportunity to access school services benefit from the experiences by establishing a sense of connectedness, which is often difficult to achieve through online learning.
Family engagement is also a crucial factor to student success. Many families disclose that their children have some form of disability as early as during the enrollment process and want to make sure they attend a school that will best cater to their needs.
“If our school is a right fit for them, we make sure to keep them informed on their child’s progress and remind them that the student should be using their accommodations,” Bestler explains.
The school also invites parents and any other family members to attend advisement sessions, so everyone is on the same page.
Forming Lifelong Learners
As students progress through the school program, they have the opportunity to discuss their future goals. The institution offers electives that might align with students’ areas of interest, and often refer them to any outside opportunities that can help with their aspirations.
“We gauge what the students’ needs are and provide them with the appropriate resources. For students that are interested in pursuing higher education, we assist them in finding schools and programs that work for them as needed, through the College and Career Readiness course. We explain to our students the importance of being lifelong learners by always asking questions to enhance their skills and knowledge,” Bestler concludes.
What Students and Parents Say About the Academy
“This is my son’s third attempt at middle school. I have never seen him so comfortable and happy with doing his assignments.” – Mother of seventh grade student with autism.
“I would like to start an LGBTQ club. How do I start it in Blackboard?” – An 11th grade student with social anxiety who feels comfortable enough using the virtual environment to start a club.
“I never knew these existed. I can do all of my work without getting headaches now. Thank you so much!” – A 10th grade student with deuteranopia who gets migraines while looking at her assignments. She has improved significantly with the anti-glare glasses recommended by the school.
Photos by: AFP – Scott A. Miller