La Plata, MD – October 31, 2019 – At the start of this school year, Milton M. Somers Middle School was without a math teacher for some of its eighth graders. Somers had a math vacancy for about 90 students enrolled in grade-level math. Vacancies in certain academic areas such as math and science are common; solutions often include long-term substitutes or pulling other staff to fill vacancies. In this case for Somers, the administrative leadership team worked with Charles County Public Schools (CCPS) staff to launch a pilot online program through Proximity Learning.

Through Proximity Learning, students participate in an online interactive classroom managed by a certificated teacher. Proximity Learning teachers are highly qualified certificated teachers who provide instruction, lesson plans, assessments and assignments. There are three classes of students at Somers who are in the pilot program this year. Each class features a different Proximity Learning teacher.

Class is set up in a computer lab with audio equipment provided by Proximity Learning. During their class period, students are monitored and assisted in person by a long-term substitute. Though in this type of class, the long-term substitute has a much larger role. Lakisha Dent-Ackwith oversees the three classes of eighth-grade general math students. After spending years working in the legal field, Dent-Ackwith began to substitute at the high-school level before taking this unique position at Somers. She has a background in public administration and received her bachelor’s degree from Bowie State University.

In addition to classroom management, Dent-Ackwith helps students with assignments, tests, class content and more. She lesson plans with the Proximity Learning teachers in order to keep the class on track and is part of grade-level team meetings at Somers. Dent-Ackwith has daily contact with each of the three virtual teachers.

Coupled with the online class are opportunities for students to meet with Dent-Ackwith for extra help. Dent-Ackwith hosts lunch and learn sessions weekly on Fridays for students who need to review class material. During the week, Dent-Ackwith helps the online teachers review course content, student grades and assignments, and helps to problem solve areas of concerns shared with her by students.

“I have daily contact with each teacher. We review lessons and try to come up with fun ways to make the content engaging. I also host lunch and learns, which are growing in size each week. I also recruit students who are doing well in the class to attend the lunch sessions. Peer-to-peer help is great for the kids,” Dent-Ackwith said.
For eighth graders Allison Alvarez and Ciara Lyons, the virtual class helps them with productivity.

“We go live with the teacher, sort of like FaceTime. I think this style of class is fun… I am a visual learner and the teacher has the time and ability to cover content more in depth. We also have more chances to review material and complete assignments,” Alvarez said.
Lyons currently has a 92 percent in the class and said what she likes best is the quick feedback from the teacher. “You can chat live with the teacher and receive an almost instant response. She also emails us and is quick to reply to our questions,” Lyons said.

Both Alvarez and Lyons said they also noticed there are less distractions among their peers in this style of class. “You have to stay focused in order to keep up. Our class is really, really quiet because we are all focused,” Alvarez said.

Another element of the virtual classes is the role of the Somers instructional leadership team. There is another layer of student monitoring with the online classes by Sheila Hettel, Somers’ instructional resource teacher. Hettel started the school year covering the three classes until the Proximity Learning program was in place, which was about three weeks after the school year began. Hettel supports Dent-Ackwith and helps her with student assessment data and grade tracking.

Parents of students in the classes attended an open house last month before the online course began. Parents had the opportunity to meet the virtual teachers through the online platform, as well as Dent-Ackwith, and to try the online course for themselves. “Parents could log-in to their child’s account and review course content,” Hettel said.

Dent-Ackwith said at first, some of the students were hesitant to try an online class. “The kids were resistant initially. Now, they are focused and really liking the style of the class,” Dent-Ackwith said.

Course material is available online for students 24 hours a day. The cost through Proximity Learning is about $11,000 per course. According to Amy Hollstein, CCPS deputy superintendent, the pilot program is a solution to address a common math teacher shortage. Staff will assess the pilot program to determine if the online platform can be expanded to other schools.

“Proximity Learning has the potential to address the declining enrollment in teacher education programs especially in the areas like math and science. Proximity gives our school district the ability to hire a qualified teacher to provide a blended interactive model for students,” Hollstein said.