NEW PORT RICHEY — Kate Newell hadn’t taught her Algebra I class at Bayonet Point Middle School in person in a few days.
So upon her arrival, the teacher strode to the front of the classroom to offer a lesson for anyone struggling with the slope-intercept formula. Through a series of questions, Newell helped the seventh- and eighth-graders determine whether a series of points sat on a line.
“What ideas do you have?” she asked.
After the brief review, Newell walked the room to confer with everyone about their progress. She follows the same routine once or twice a week.
That’s because Newell doesn’t travel to Bayonet Point every day, despite having a full set of math classes assigned to her.
She’s part of Pasco eSchool’s growing Classroom on Demand program.
It’s a new project, devised to help district schools that can’t find subs to fill their classrooms. Instead, they turn to the county’s virtual education program for support.
The students still gather in their classrooms like usual. But instead of meeting daily with their teacher, they turn to an instructional aide while they take an online course at their own pace.
The teachers work from home, available by text message, phone call, email, and the occasional live webinar session. They teach on campus at least weekly.
It’s not ideal. And it’s admittedly more expensive than putting one person in a classroom — particularly a sub who makes less than $100 a day.
But pretty much everyone agrees it beats the alternative.
Substitutes “don’t even know what they are doing,” eighth-grader Gabrielle Mathison opined, suggesting they are unable to answer student questions and often don’t understand the lessons prepared for them.
Having a qualified teacher on call who visits from time to time is much better, Gabrielle said.
“We can do it better than an uncertified substitute. That’s the intent here,” said eSchool principal JoAnne Glenn, who formed the program at the request of building principals. “We are not discouraging the schools from finding a [permanent] teacher. That’s always Plan A.”
But the school district, like most, doesn’t have a plethora of qualified applicants for its teaching jobs — especially in areas such as math. It has struggled to find substitutes.
Human resources director Kim Newberry reported in September that schools were able to fill only about three quarters of their “guest teacher” needs — much lower than in past years. In many cases, that leads to other faculty members giving up planning periods to cover the missing teacher’s classes.
A few schools attempted to use distance learning, with teachers lecturing on screen from other states.
That idea didn’t work out as well as hoped. So eSchool stepped up, with core courses the primary focus.
Students in the classes say they’d prefer having a full-time educator in the classroom.
“I don’t think I like the online course that much,” seventh-grader Jacob Iovino said. “I like having a teacher.”
Still, they’re warming to the approach. It allows them freedom to breathe, talk to classmates, take a break without getting in trouble.
Eighth-grader Ariana Toro said it can be difficult to get an answer to a question so she can move ahead with her lesson. But she can go back and review videos and lectures online, which wouldn’t be possible if a classroom teacher decided to surge ahead.
“It’s good and bad,” she said. “This is basically in-school homeschool, if that makes sense.”
Some students have no concerns.
“I would love all the classes to be this way,” said seventh-grader Evelyn Boggs. “Teachers would not be stumped when I’m so far ahead, and they don’t have the next lessons ready. That happens pretty often.”
Teachers who lead the Classrooms on Demand see mostly positives in the model.
Newell, who previously taught at Anclote High, said she likes being able to work from home most days, but still have classroom interaction with students. She can make videos and other resources for students, as well as grade papers, in the time when everyone is working and not seeking her support — something that can’t happen in a full-time classroom.
“It’s like the best of both worlds,” she said.
Karen Feeney, who’s teaching English for Hudson High, said she appreciates that she can pay attention to the students without having to worry as much about course preparation. And because the students address her directly, she can deal with their specific needs rather than worry about the classroom vibe.
“It’s an absolutely perfect blend of getting the work, giving personal feedback in a timely manner and having a personal connection,” Feeney said.
The instructional aides who spend each day with the students said they enjoy the impact they have on making the courses successful.
“Our duties are to keep order in the classroom, make sure they’re on track,” said Starsky Dominguez, who assists Classroom on Demand at Wiregrass Ranch High. “We offer them something a traditional class doesn’t have.”
Bayonet Point principal Shelley Carrino called the option a life saver.
“It provides the kids with consistency when you unfortunately don’t have a certified teacher to put in front of them,” she said.
Carrino said Newell has been so good that she tried to recruit her to work in the school full time. It didn’t work.
“I personally would never want to take a math class online,” she said. “But this teacher taught the kids to take responsibility for their learning … Things are going well.”
eSchool principal Glenn said she continues to receive calls from other schools to provide a Classroom on Demand. Even elementary schools are starting to ask.
“Our curriculum is always ready,” Glenn said. “They will not have missed instruction. We can figure out where it stopped at school and pick it up and get them on track.”