Key Questions to Outline Your Independent Study Program Structure

Independent Study (IS) and flexible learning environments have become an integral part of education as the space continues to evolve and innovate in response to learner needs, environmental variables, and new educational approaches. Even more so, in California specifically, almost every district in the state now has an Independent Study option to offer some variation on remote or hybrid learning.

As defined by the California Department of Education, it is important to note that Independent Study is “an alternative to classroom instruction consistent with a local educational agency’s course of study and is not an alternative curriculum.” That second part is key; IS is not a secondary or simpler path but an equitable alternative learning option—not without its unique challenges either. Thus it is crucial that administrators, educators, and other key stakeholders design and evolve their Independent Study and online programs to deliver the best learning environment for their students.

That’s why School Pathways has created this Independent Study Essentials series to address the biggest topics we get questions about in the field of IS, virtual, and hybrid learning.

In each segment, we will share advice from educators who are deeply versed in Independent Study, and we hope this series can serve as a resource for others creating or updating their own IS programs. Our first topic covers five questions to help you devise your own program-wide structure and organization for Independent Study.

Subsequent parts will focus on the onboarding process for IS and virtual learning, curriculum planning and selection, and maintaining student engagement and re-engagement intervention practices.

We would also like to give a special thanks to the educators who helped inform this series and are featured throughout: Dr. Lesley Clifton, CCIS Co-Executive Director and Principal at Escondido Charter High School; Machele Kilgore, CCIS Co-Executive Director and Alternative Education Principal at Orange County DOE; J.J. Lewis, Superintendent & CEO of Compass Charter Schools; Justin Lim, Online Learning Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA) at El Monte Union High School District; and Dave Meyer, Chief Academic Officer at The Classical Academies.


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Turning Tides and Continued Growth Post-Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic served as a spark for the growth of Independent Study and virtual learning by introducing more students and families to alternative schooling models. When distance learning was instated as an emergency measure in 2020, many viewed virtual learning as temporary. Still, as more time has passed, many students have decided to stay in IS programs because of the support and flexibility it provides. With these additional groups joining the many learners enrolled in Independent Study programs even before the pandemic, we are seeing a new wave in non-traditional learning.

The opportunities and customization within IS can seem endless, which is both exciting for students and parents and sometimes overwhelming for educators. Understanding the history of IS in California can be a helpful starting place to gauge how and why virtual and hybrid offerings have evolved and what components will be most relevant for your program–because every program will be different.

History of Independent Study in California

According to the California Department of Education (CDE), the first laws allowing Independent Study were enacted in 1976. IS was initially intended to serve students whose specialized activities or medical necessities kept them from attending the physical classroom day in and day out. This included child actors, aspiring Olympic athletes, and families on the move for a parent or guardian’s work. Although some of the students who participate in IS still fit these criteria, the range of students currently enrolled in IS has greatly diversified as Independent Study programs have evolved in terms of what they offer and how they run.

Now, many students are enrolling because they benefit from the personalized pacing, to expand beyond subjects usually taught at their school, or because the traditional five days a week, in-person just doesn’t work for them. With Independent Study today, students can have multiple teachers for different subjects, participate in club activities and social electives, and sign up for concurrent enrollment within a community college. Some programs even have tracks that allow students to attend physical school several days a week while the structure of the courses and how they learn are still built around the IS model.

On top of the natural school-led changes to arise within Independent Study, many laws and regulations have been introduced in the last forty-six years that mandate adjustments to these programs. Bills such as AB 130 , AB 167, and AB 181 mandate more regulated opportunities for live interaction and synchronous instruction, tracking specific variables that indicate chronic disengagement from students, an outlined plan for executing tiered re-engagement with learners and their guardians, updates to master agreements, and more. While aspects of these policies help direct programs to think about their students on an individual level and monitor engagement, they’ve also brought administrative burdens that influence workflows within any given program.

Questions to Help Define Your Own Independent Study or Virtual Program

Many people with limited Independent Study experience have the misconception that it is just one student full-time at home, supervised by one teacher. Even though this is the case for some, it’s not for everyone. The CDE has outlined the fundamental Elements of Exemplary Independent Study with requirements on teacher quality, course materials, and admission processes. Following these guidelines is an essential baseline checklist and will make it easier for educators to have a starting point in defining their programs. Yet beyond that, there are a number of crucial questions to ask oneself when building or updating an IS program in order to tailor it to your specific community.

        1. Who makes up the population of students and families/guardians that you will serve?

Every community is unique, and it’s important to understand who will be enrolled in your program to design a system that will work for those individuals. Many educators recommend evaluating both student needs and parent and family needs. This is key because many students rely on at-home support to help guide them through schoolwork. So if those parent or guardian needs are not being met, it can negatively impact the learner.

Do you have many students who work professionally alongside schooling? Do you have learners with specific IEPs? What students might be entering your program needing to catch up to their grade level? What about learners who may not have the at-home support mentioned above? Honing in on these answers will go a long way toward designing a program that caters to student and teacher success.

        2. What is your school’s learning philosophy or style?

Every school or program has a central learning philosophy, whether it’s sticking to the A-G requirements or charting a newer path. It’s essential to have that central approach clearly identified and outlined in order to instill those values in your teachers, staff, and student base. For example, Dr. Lesley Clifton from Escondido Charter HS shares how her school is classically inspired. Students enter an initial grammar stage, which consists of building their memorization skills and learning the background for everything they will learn in the future. Then comes the logic stage, when students begin to have some pushback and start to question what they are being taught. This allows students to build their critical thinking skills and learn on a deeper level. Finally comes the rhetoric stage, where students take everything they’ve learned and apply it in the classroom and in real life.

Another prevalent philosophy is project-based learning. This is often taught in high-tech schools where students are given more hands-on experience from which they ask questions and find answers through doing. Or again, other schools are more in alignment with Common Core. The point being that every program should have a central learning style from which curriculum, learning settings, and communications grow.

        3. How will your staff support the number of students that are enrolled?

While it may seem like a simple question, having an honest assessment of your program’s scope and learner capacity is a key early step in setting the scene for your program. This involves surveying your staff and teachers, subject matter experts, and physical location (if relevant) to understand how much you’re trying to tackle and thus how you will be able to do it.

For example, offering a variety of learning opportunities is extremely beneficial to students, but you don’t want to overstretch to the point where execution gets compromised. Certain teachers will likely need to become experts in several curriculum sources in order to help guide students in their learning. Identifying a dedicated staff member to continuously look into best practices and pay attention to how you can improve student learning is also something you can instate to help continually assess and evolve your program.

        4. Is your program completely virtual, hybrid, or some combination, and what will those options look like?

There are benefits to different models and combinations when it comes to Independent Study. Are you looking to provide maximum time flexibility for students to partake in work or extracurricular activities? How much do you want or need to offer one-to-one guided support from teachers through an in-person class or drop-in hours? The important thing to know about Independent Study is that it doesn’t just have to be one student with one teacher on a computer screen all the time. As long as 80% of a student’s work is done in an Independent Study setting, programs can offer other things, including classes on campus, tutoring, mentoring, extracurriculars, and more.

Educators may also adjust the support they provide based on the different circumstances that students are experiencing. For example, if many students’ parents tend to work late hours, then a program might also provide more in-person support on campus after school hours. Or if courses that are more difficult for families to support at home, like science or math, are being covered, you can plan to provide tutoring or partner with other local learning centers to fill that need.

Again, the answer will often boil down to what your students might need and prefer and what options you can provide to cast a net to catch different variations.

        5. Which curriculum is the best fit, and how will it be deployed?

Most schools utilize a Learning Management System (LMS) or digital content provider to deliver content and assignments to students. Justin Lim, Online Learning TOSA at El Monte Union High School District, also prioritizes access to physical textbooks, noting that different formats work for different learners, and it’s important not just to assume that online and paperless are always better. Partnering with a local community college can be another way to broaden course topics and class styles.

Finding your balance between digital and traditional curriculum also helps determine whether the IS program in question is entirely virtual or hybrid. Again, this both touches on the idea that you need to understand your student population in order to provide what works for them. It also acknowledges that no matter who you serve, it will include a diversity of learning styles, so having options for your learners is always a benefit. We will touch more on curriculum options in part three of this series.

Key Takeaways and What’s Next

The history, laws, and different variables that make up the Independent Study landscape are helpful touchstones to ground any IS, virtual, or hybrid program. When it comes to further defining or evolving your Independent Study program, you must also understand the unique population of learners you teach, instill a central learning philosophy, get grounded about how to allocate staffing and resources, and know that there are still a number of in-person and human-to-human components you can incorporate into your program as a whole.

Now that we have outlined questions to help devise your own Independent Study program structure, you may be wondering what comes next. The following installment of this Independent Study Essentials series will detail another crucial part of managing an IS program: onboarding students, families, and staff for virtual learning. We will also cover curriculum planning and maintaining student engagement in later pieces.

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