Will Kaeding's teacher was absent, so the Chanhassen sophomore went to one of his school's common spaces, cracked open his laptop and started working on his online assignment — no substitute teacher in sight.

Chanhassen High, along with Farmington High, are among the first schools in the state to try letting students learn on their own rather than hiring substitutes to fill in for teachers. Administrators tout the change as "flexible learning," an educational approach that teaches students responsibility — and saves districts tens of thousands of dollars a year.

"Arbitrarily getting a babysitter just because that's what we have always done makes no sense whatsoever," said Tim Dorway, Chanhassen High School principal. On average, he said six to seven of the school's 100 teachers are absent on a given day.

Going without substitutes works, administrators say, if students have access to technology that allows them to work independently and a common space where other staff can keep tabs on them. But some parents aren't convinced that flexible learning provides adequate supervision to work for all students. And some teachers prefer to have substitutes in class when they're gone.

"I think when families send their kids to public schools, the reason they're doing that vs. online schools is they want their children to have that face-to-face interaction with licensed teachers," said Katie Anderson, a substitute teacher at Orono High School.

School officials say the concept could spread, given increasing emphasis on technology in schools. Plus, the statewide substitute teacher shortage makes it difficult to find someone with subject-specific knowledge on short notice.

"I would think that a lot of schools are probably keeping their eye on Chanhassen and Farmington," said Cassie Scharber, a University of Minnesota professor of curriculum and instruction. "This is really creative."

Relying on students

Farmington still is figuring out how often substitutes are necessary, increasingly going without. But Chanhassen almost completely has done away with them, leaving students on their own 90 percent of the time when a teacher is absent.

Both districts said skipping substitutes is a natural extension of increased technology use. They've already been using online lessons in the classroom, and, in Farmington's case, asking students to work on them from home on snow days. Why not try it when the teacher's absent?

And it saves money. The Farmington district expects to cut at least $31,000 from its substitute teaching budget this year. Chanhassen predicts $70,000 in savings.

"We're in a situation where budgets are extremely tight, and we're looking for innovative ways to save money," said Laura Beem, a Farmington school board member.

In Farmington, students without teachers report to the commons — next to the administrative offices — or the library. All students have a district-provided iPad they use to work on assignments. Chanhassen created an app that requires students to "check in" for class in one of the school's new open spaces set up for independent work. There's always a teacher or counselor nearby, but students are on their own to get assignments done.

Dorway said the no-substitute routine teaches time management and instills a sense of trust and accountability.

"They need to be ready for this in college," he said. "Quite frankly, one of the ways we've failed students before is by not preparing them."

Students seem to think the arrangement works well. "[Substitutes] are nice people, but they're kind of just making sure we don't do anything dumb," said Cassy Hoeft, a Chanhassen senior.

Teachers have been positive about it, too, although they say it can take a while for kids to get the hang of it. Both schools still hire substitutes when teachers request them.

At Chanhassen, American Sign Language teacher Damon Johnson has skipped a substitute five times, in part because it's not easy to find a one who knows sign language. The first time he left instructions for kids to work independently, he said, most didn't understand what to do. The second time, about half completed the assignment. But the third time was a success.

"I don't see the benefit of having a sub in the room when students can go where they're comfortable and do the work themselves," Johnson said.

Supervision needed?

The Farmington Education Association was initially skeptical of the plan, said Lynda Ihlan, union president.

"One of the concerns that we had is the safety of our students … and making sure that they're accounted for," she said.

But teachers have reported that they like the system, and administrators assured the union students would be supervised.

A spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Education said substitutes are required for special education classes. Otherwise, he said, the only requirement for student supervision is that a licensed staff member be in the room or nearby.

Still, some educators have doubts.

Kim Howard, CEO of Teachers on Call, a company that provides 58 Minnesota districts with substitutes, said flexible learning doesn't work for everyone. Some students may not be ready developmentally to take charge of their own learning, educators said.

"I still think that [students] need supervision," she said. "What if a kid needs help, what if a kid acts out?"

Farmington social studies teacher Todd Karich said students benefit from having substitutes share their stories and knowledge.

"If I get a choice in the matter, I'm always going to go with the sub," he said.

Solvei Wilmot, whose son Luther is a Chanhassen sophomore, said she's "cautiously reserved" about the change.

"It's kind of dependent on the kid making it successful," she said, noting she hasn't heard its not working.

Teachers can arrange extra supervision for individual students — maybe time in a study hall or the administrator's office — if necessary, said Farmington Principal Jason Berg.

"Knowing that they're 15- 16- and 17-year-olds, they're going to do dumb things," he said. "It's how you react to that."

Erin Adler • 952-746-3283