Best Practices for Managing Master Agreements in Independent Study

Evolving technological landscapes, changing philosophies on individualized learning, and enduring consequences of pandemic-era policies have led to a growing demand for tailored and quality learning experiences among students and their families. Many districts see increasing numbers of students interested in alternative instruction for a wide variety of reasons. Whether the student is an athlete with Olympic-sized goals or an immunocompromised individual looking for a more health-conscious learning environment, educators can expect to see more and more requests for Independent Study (IS) programs.

These changes provide positive opportunities for educators to meet students’ needs and interests. However, they come with enormous administrative and compliance burdens for educators. Teachers deserve to focus on what they do best: teach. Streamlining Master Agreements (MA) for IS students is a crucial step in ensuring Independent Study compliance while alleviating the burden on IS educators. From creating and distributing agreements to obtaining signatures and archiving fully executed MAs, school leaders need a solution that offers simplicity and ease. As a result, the IS experience can be better delivered to the students invested in their individualized education. 

Understanding Master Agreements in Independent Study

The Independent Study program casts an ambitious goal over educational opportunities for students. It aims to “respond to the pupil’s specific educational needs, interests, aptitudes, and abilities within the confines of board policy.” IS was initially designed to meet the needs of child actors and young competitive athletes who had non-traditional scheduling demands. However, the program has been adapted over time to accommodate the needs of a wide range of students including those with health concerns, external obligations (such as children of their own), and neurodiverse learning needs.

The Master Agreement — otherwise known as the Written Agreement, Independent Study Contract, or Learning Agreement — outlines program expectations and responsibilities for the student and their guardian. This may include learning objectives, coursework, communication protocols, and IS program duration. These foundational elements offer individualized, virtual instruction to a wide range of students from varying backgrounds. 

Primary Components of Master Agreements

The MA is a guiding document that requires careful consideration of many components

  • Student data
  • Beginning and end dates of agreement
  • Manner, time, and place for assignment and feedback submissions and communication 
  • Subject/course list with course credit details
  • Learning objectives and methods of study
  • Methods of evaluation 
  • List of specific resources and access information
  • Details on assignment timelines, satisfactory progress, and participation
  • Statements on the program’s non-compulsory nature and details for expelled or suspended students
  • Details about meetings with the teacher and assignment submission
  • Dated signatures for involved parties (including student, teacher, parent/guardian, and certificated responsible employees)

Timely completion of the MA helps ensure that schools will receive funding for students enrolled in their IS program. Completed agreements are also valuable instruments that empower IS educators to establish a clear communication plan with students and their families. Moreover, these agreements provide a detailed framework for meeting educational standards. It is especially important that this document be fully completed because no ADA (average daily attendance) can be reported until then. That means districts that are not in compliance will not receive appropriate apportionment. In addition, a thorough and streamlined MA process gives educators confidence in their readiness for audits. 

3 Ways to Manage Master Agreements Effectively

To manage MAs effectively, educators will want to follow the following tips:

1. Establish Clear Protocols

Compliance with administrative requirements is easiest when all those involved understand its purpose and importance. Make sure that it’s clear to all involved that a local educational agency (LEA) will not be eligible to receive apportionments unless it has adopted and implemented written policies and board-approved MAs. 

Inevitably, some agreements will require changes during the IS program. For example, the supervising teacher may change, or the method of communication with a family might need to be adjusted. It’s important to have a positive working relationship with your auditor so that you can get clear guidance on how to best mark these changes (typically via an addendum) and keep your MAs in compliance. Ensure that auditors, families, supervising teachers, and administrators all have a good understanding of their roles, open lines of communication, and available resources. 

At its core, the MA is an outline of expectations and communication. Make sure to keep these principles at play in the process. For example, Master Agreements need to be signed and dated by all parties before the start of the program (or within 10 school days for short-term IS). As a result, all parties involved are ready to start as planned, avoiding stressors on educators or students. 

2. Digitize Master Agreements 

Paper-based, manual entry for Master Agreements can be prone to error and difficult to track and share among involved parties. To effectively manage Independent Study agreements, educators will want to implement efficient mechanisms that prioritize clarity and compliance.

Sync Student Information

A smooth Independent Study enrollment starts with seamless rostering between your student data systems and IS processes. While you can create individual Master Agreements for each student, advanced options could pull in required student information via rostering with SIS for increased efficiency. 

What’s more, ​​automated syncing of student, class, and staff data ensures educators have clarity on student movements between traditional classroom rosters and Independent Study IS programs. 

Build and Customize Templates

Rather than having to start from scratch each time you create an agreement, customizable templates allow MA boilerplate to be replicated across all MAs. This process saves the time required to create the agreements while ensuring that all agreements are consistent with a school’s policies and allows for easy inclusion of necessary compliance provisions.

Additionally, it’s simply not enough to make content available to families in one language. Having digital agreements in a platform that supports multilingual content may be required under the California education code and can improve accessibility for households where English isn’t the primary language.

Digitize and Distribute Signatures

Going digital with signatures doesn’t just make collecting and verifying agreements easier and faster—it also helps the environment by cutting down on paper waste. Although e-signatures can take various forms, from typed names to digital certifications, it’s key to follow department guidelines and use an electronic, secure solution that complies with state laws and your auditor’s expectations.

A digital method not only simplifies the signature collection process but should also notify all parties, including staff, students, and families, in a variety of ways. Whether through email distribution or enabling PDF printing, educators can ensure everyone receives communications in their preferred format, promoting multi-modal ways to collaborate throughout the entire agreement process.

Generate Multiple Active Agreements

Schools may need to differentiate tracks, programs, and paths for their IS students. For example, this might include a classroom-based track versus a homeschool track or a summer track versus a fall track. The duration of the agreements needs to agree with the board-approved school calendar, so the timing of these tracks is essential. 

One of the significant benefits of conducting your Master Agreements online is flexibility. By having the ability to create multiple active IS contracts for students, educators can accommodate changes and curricula throughout the school year. 

3. Monitor and Archive Master Agreements

Ongoing agreement status monitoring and the ability to archive completed agreements is a building block of administering compliant IS programs. Teachers can transition out of their roles, students might leave the IS program early, and methods of instruction can change. These unpredictable but inevitable changes may trigger MA addendum requirements for students in your program. Having a system that can track and notify IS educators when addendums must be created can mitigate the compliance hurdles of managing ongoing program changes.

Additionally, a centralized dashboard that provides status oversight of outstanding agreements helps users track MA compliance with greater efficiency. Teachers can quickly identify incomplete agreements (such as those missing signatures) and ensure timely follow-up for their completion. With the ability to send out reminders to outstanding parties, users can facilitate next steps with the click of a button. 

Coupled with the convenience of a digital dashboard, having an online repository for MAs helps educators effectively house, organize, and share archives. No more struggling with paper-based processes—teachers can easily keep detailed audit trails when it comes to audit preparation.

Independent Study Agreements in Practice

Michael Brubaker, Director of Operations for Visions in Education was seeking a new way to manage MAs for IS students and was thrilled to find that streamlining the process considerably reduced the administrative workload of all involved. “Now that families can sign electronically, all the outreach and driving around to gather master agreements is gone, and that has drastically saved time for our teachers, instructional team, and office staff.” 

Vision in Education’s experience with School Pathways isn’t an anomaly. Their success in streamlining MAs is representative of the experience of many educators who have chosen to simplify and modernize the process. In fact, the ability to digitize MAs and access the necessary information anytime anywhere has led to a 40% time savings while reducing paper and storage expenses. 

Save Time and Build Educational Opportunities That Work

Independent Study aims to provide a unique and flexible learning opportunity for students who need an alternative delivery method. Teachers can better meet those needs when their time is freed up for teaching rather than chasing down signatures and worrying about compliance language. 

A streamlined solution like School Pathways gives teachers back the time they need to do the work that matters most. At the same time, they can ensure that MAs are created in a compliant way that will smooth over any unexpected changes to the plan. Students, families, teachers, and administrators can all breathe easier knowing that there’s a clear, well-communicated plan in place. 

Are you ready to bring efficiency and simplicity to your MA process? Chat with us to learn more about our software for effective Independent Study program management today.

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