(TNS) — The addition of blended classes and refining virtual school are two of the ways USD 435 is working to meet the facilities and technology goal of the district's strategic plan.

Board of Education members heard an update on the status of the district's three-year-old strategic plan during the Aug. 8 board meeting. The plan was developed in the summer of 2013 after about 70 community members met with school officials and told them what Abilene schools need to do for students to succeed.

The plan has five major goals: Student development, facilities and technology, community engagement, learning partnerships, professional learning and staff.

As far as the general public is concerned, the facilities part of the strategic plan has been the most visible goal.  The district-wide renovation and building project that now is winding down at Abilene High School came directly out of that 2013 meeting. But besides keeping facilities updated for maximum learning, the other side of that goal includes offering technology to "better ensure that high academic, social and behavior expectations can be met."

One of the tenets of that goal was to offer some blended classes and research and adjust Abilene Virtual School.

What's a blended class?

"The blended definition is very broad," Assistant Superintendent Chris Cooper told board members. "So it's hard to nail down if anyone else is doing what we're doing, but ours is a pretty good model."

USD 435 currently offers two blended classes: Blended government -- available to qualifying AHS seniors -- is now in its third year and Biology 2 is in its second year.

Seniors in blended government start the school year in class every day. Then at some point, assignments are put online and students can do their assignments and show up to class when needed, Cooper explained. "They have to come in for assessments," he said. "If they keep up with their work and maintain work completion, they can do it online."

"Not a lot of kids show up every day. They like the format. They like the freedom to learn anywhere anytime. They handle it really, really well," added AHS Principal Ben Smith.

Students sign a contract that says they'll live up to a certain standard. If they don't meet the requirements, they have to move back into the regular senior government class. Also, if students have less than a "C" they have to attend class every day.

Students who tend not to hand in work are steered away from taking the blended class. "Counselors will say 'maybe this isn't the class for you,'" Cooper said.

Smith explained that students wanting to take blended government are required to write a one-page letter explaining why they'll benefit from the class. "That right there will turn off some kids, so that's a little bit of a weeding out process."

About every three weeks, students attend class to meet with the teacher in small groups and talk about things that may be giving them trouble. "They engage in some different kinds of discussions, they get online, offline, out-of-school, in school (instruction)," Smith said. "It's pretty slick."

The government class is necessary for graduation so the success rate is pretty good, both men said.

As for Biology 2, it's open to more than just seniors, so students must attend class, Cooper said, but the class is somewhat self-paced, with information online. "It's offered on site. No one's leaving Bio 2. They can watch the lecture and work ahead to do the work," Cooper said.

Virtual school, DCLE

Superintendent Denise Guy said enrollment in Abilene Virtual School -- where students attend school online -- is holding in the 20-student range.

The district is still working on refining requirements and the purpose of AVS as part of its strategic plan.

Smith said students in AVS have to be self-starters and self-motivated, which describes students who also succeed in the traditional school setting.

Cooper said some parents who felt traditional school was the problem and their child would succeed in virtual school sometimes have been disappointed.

"Some things are becoming more clear year after year," Smith added. "Students who are successful in traditional school are also successful in virtual school. But those who are looking for a different environment because they don't like school or don't like the kids in school are also struggling in virtual school," Smith continued.

Classes offered in virtual school and DCLE (Dickinson County Learning Exchange) are similar, but DCLE students report to class and have staff checking on them.

"You have to come to school. You've got this block of your day set aside to do school work," Cooper explained. "But in virtual school, you can put it off. And if you do that a couple weeks, you're in danger of not being successful."

Initially, a county-wide program geared to help youth finish high school, the program now serves only Abilene students after USD 435 took it over several years ago.

DCLE is an on-site, self-paced, supported digital learning environment for students who may benefit from a non-traditional school setting.

Cooper said DCLE enrollment has been in the 16-student range, although he'd like to move that up to 18 if space can be found in the Support Services Building -- where classes are held -- to make it feasible.

"We don't want it to get too big, but it's been a good option for a lot of kids," Cooper explained. "It allows them to take one step down that path to graduation each day they show up."

Smith said since USD 435 absorbed DCLE "there's probably been 50 to 60 kids who wouldn't have graduated school otherwise."

©2016 the Abilene Reflector-Chronicle (Abilene, Kan.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.