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Before South Eastern Middle School adopted the hybrid learning model, seventh-grade English teacher Jillian Watto shied away from having her students work together. Like many teachers, she was concerned they would get distracted easily and wouldn't learn.

Now, groups of her students work together every day.

"Watching them thrive with peers is interesting to see," she said, adding most of her students tend to prefer a collaborative setting now.

Watto's room is divided into two groups: students along the perimeter of the room working independently on their reading assignments and answering questions, and groups of students paired together in the center of the room.

The room is quiet except for the hushed chatter of the students grouped together, all discussing their assignment fervently. All conversation is focused on the work, not on Christmas, the latest middle-school gossip or what they have planned for the upcoming weekend.

This is what the hybrid model looks like at South Eastern Middle School.

Hybrid basics: Hybrid learning essentially encourages teachers to implement stations in their classrooms, but there's a lot of flexibility, intermediate and middle-school Principal Jon Horton explained. Some teachers might have four different stations in their room, some might have three and some, like Watto, might only have two.

Depending on the class, students usually have a station where they can work independently, a station where they work collaboratively and a station where they receive instruction from the teacher, much like a traditional classroom but in a smaller group.

In teacher Abbey Lichtenberg's seventh-grade social studies class, there are three different stations during the current unit on human-rights issues in Asian countries. For the instruction station. Lichtenberg checks in with students to answer questions, go over the information they've found so far and ensure they all understand what is due and when.

Meanwhile, just a few feet behind her, groups of three to four students chatter about how they can best demonstrate and educate their fellow students on their particular country and human-rights issue. Students working individually just another few feet away watch videos on their computer about the Geneva Conventions.

One might think with all the business in the classroom, students might have difficulty focusing or might be distracted by what another station is doing. But in each classroom, the students seem laser-focused on the task at hand.

The start: This is the first year the hybrid-learning model has been adopted at South Eastern Middle School. The model began at the intermediate school, specifically at the fifth-grade level, three years ago. Horton said the district had noticed a dip in growth and test scores among fifth-graders for some time and couldn't figure out why.

After seeing how successful the program was, Horton extended it to the sixth-grade classes as well. Students work in a hybrid-learning model in each of their core classes: English language arts, math, science and social studies.

The hybrid-learning model seems to be helping with PSSA test scores, which have slowly increased at the fifth-grade level since implementation, according to data on the Pennsylvania Department of Education's website.

In 2015, 68.5 percent of fifth-graders at the school scored as proficient or advanced on the ELA exam, but this increased to 73.1 percent in 2016. For math, 49.8 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in 2015, but in 2016, 56 percent of fifth-graders achieved the same scores.

With that information as well as student and teacher feedback in hand, this year the district implemented hybrid learning in the entire middle school building, including in the special classes such as technology education and foreign languages. Horton said that while the program has been an adjustment for teachers and students alike, it has been received favorably.

"It’s working, so I’m real pleased with the direction we’re going here, and I think a lot of it has to do with the hybrid learning, and I think a lot of it has to do with the teachers," Horton said.

As far as Horton knows, South Eastern School District is the first to implement a hybrid learning model across disciplines and across entire buildings.

Benefits: A major benefit to the hybrid-learning model is the ability to personalize the system to whatever works best for that particular classroom. In addition to choosing how many stations to include, teachers can decide how they would like to group students to move through those stations.

For example, fifth-grade ELA teacher Crystina Warner teaches a class with learning-support students mixed in with other students. To figure out how to group her students, she spent time looking at their test-score data and learning styles. Other teachers, such as Watto, grouped students according to ability for one unit but according to interests for another unit.

Another benefit is how engaging the hybrid model is, according to Warner. Students are asked to focus on a project for approximately 20 minutes, depending on the teacher and the class. Then, they get up and move to a different station that will continue to drive home the subject they are learning about, but in a different way.

Brian Brenneman, a sixth-grade math teacher, said the model makes it difficult for students to hide in the back of the classroom or not pay attention. When they are working with the teacher in the more direct group, there typically aren't more than 10 students to focus on at a time. He can see if students are struggling, spend more direct time helping them and be sure they are paying attention to the matter at hand.

"Today I talked with every single kid in my class," he said. Not many teachers have that opportunity if they teach in the traditional model.

Horton later added that the inability for students to hide has decreased discipline and disruptions in class in both buildings.

Finally, the model encourages higher-level thinking and independence in learning, Horton said.

This is seen in Brenneman's class, where his grouped students recently were working on figuring out their family lines exponentially.

Allyson Eaton, a 12-year-old in the class, turned to her group and asked them how she should describe a particular historic event for their presentation. Ty Seukaseum, the 11-year-old boy in her group sitting next to her, gave his opinion while Alyssa Polson waited patiently before asking if she should include a visual or not.

"I like all the stations," Alyssa said. "I like hybrid learning because you can do different things," Other students in her group like working collaboratively best because if they don't know something, they can work through it with friends.

Challenges: Implementing the hybrid model wasn't easy, though.

Brenneman said he was hesitant to switch to the hybrid-learning model at first after teaching traditionally. The biggest adjustment for him was having so much going on in the classroom at once. While working with his direct group, he also had to learn to keep an eye on the students working collaboratively and individually. He also had to develop lesson plans that allowed for three activities at once.

Another struggle that the assistant principal for South Eastern Intermediate School noticed was the new focus on data.

Before becoming the assistant principal, Todd Mulder was the only sixth-grade teacher to implement hybrid learning when the fifth-grade teachers were required to do so. The system encourages teachers to focus more on data related to test scores and abilities, he said.

This allows teachers to group students strategically, but it also allows teachers to see gaps in learning and tailor their lessons to students' needs, Mulder said.

"Because I started looking more at individual student data and needs, that’s where more work came in, but I found I could target more specifically what they needed instead of teaching to the masses," he said. "I could cover more ground that way."

Teachers weren't the only people who struggled at first with the shift. Horton said at younger levels, the teachers really have to teach students how to work individually and how to collaborate.

When working individually, students have to be taught to persevere, re-read information or ask a close neighbor. Horton said their typical instinct when stuck is to immediately raise their hand for help from the teacher, and they're trying to teach kids not to do that. When working collaboratively, he said students often tend to divide and conquer a project.

Horton said, overall, students adjust well to the hybrid model after a bit of a learning curve, and then they come to prefer it.

Cayleigh Martin, a 12-year-old in Lichtenberg's seventh-grade social studies class, moved to the district this year from a school that didn't use hybrid learning, and she's a fan.

"I don't get lost as easy," she said. "I like hybrid a lot better."

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