Blended-learning programs often mean alternating days for online and on-site learning or enrolling students in one or two online courses. But a Richfield school set to open in 2015 plans to systematically implement this hybrid model across its entire curriculum — and do so in a way that also gives students the attention of teachers five days a week.

Flex Academy, a public charter school, will have students attend class on campus five days a week for online courses, but it will not be a distance learning program. Teachers will be in the classroom each day to help with students’ learning and to offer real-time feedback and grading.

“Not only are we creating a flexible learning space, we are creating a flexible schedule,” Principal Greg Gentle said. Gentle was formerly a public schoolteacher in Minneapolis and Woodbury; he also was principal for two school districts in Wisconsin.

Flex Academy, to be located in Richfield’s Hub Shopping Center, will open in time for the 2015-16 academic year. The school will initially serve metro-area students in grades 6, 7 and 9.

The school hopes to expand to other grades within a few years, but the focus at first will be on the transitional grades as children move out of elementary or junior high school, Gentle said.

Online courses at Flex Academy will allow students to work at their own pace and to choose which subjects to study on a given day. A student could have one day with four hours of math and the remainder of the week heavier on other subjects, Gentle said. “Not every child needs every lesson every day,” he said.

Online and distance learning programs have grown tremendously in recent years. During the 2009-10 academic year, 55 percent of public school districts in the United States had students enrolled in online programs, including more than 1.3 million high school students, according to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics. That reflected an increase of more than 1 million high school students since the 2004-05 academic year, the report said.

Currently there are 30 distance learning schools authorized to operate in Minnesota, but many public school districts and charters also provide online learning options that complement traditional teaching methods, as Flex Academy will.

St. Paul’s Cyber Village Academy has used a blended-learning model since 1997, and teacher Christy Buxman said it has made students more independent and engaged in their education.

“It’s not for everyone,” cautioned Buxman, who teaches third and fourth grade. “But it can certainly do amazingly great things for some kids.”

Despite the growth in online learning, results have not been entirely positive.

On average, full-time online students in grades 4 through 8 made about half as much progress on the MCA II Math test as did their traditional learning counterparts between 2008 and 2010, according to a 2011 Minnesota Legislative Auditor’s report. Dropout rates among online students were also much higher, the report said.

But by merging online and onsite instruction, Flex Academy hopes to dispel some of the concerns many people still have about online education.

“I think the online content is best delivered with the support of an adult,” Gentle said, explaining that what makes Flex Academy different from online schools — and even many hybrid schools — is the contact with teachers five days a week.

“We recognize that learning is social,” Gentle said. “That’s why we’re not just an online school.”


Elizabeth Hustad is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.