Providing a Customer-Focused Education
The mission of Oxford Community Schools is to “provide an education that challenges all students to achieve their maximum potential in academics, arts, and athletics and prepares them to succeed in a global society.” Meeting the individual needs of every student can be challenging. Oxford tackles this challenge by viewing their students and families as customers. With this external focus, the district looks at all aspects of education, from the programs they provide to the internal systems that exist, and asks “How does this impact student learning?”
Oxford Schools has more than 6,000 students in pre-kindergarten through grade 13. With over 78 square miles in northern Oakland County, it is one of the largest school districts in southeast Michigan. In 2016-17, 15% of the student population was racially diverse and 19% were economically disadvantaged. The district is home to five elementary schools, one middle school, one high school, an early learning center, one adjudicated youth facility, one alternative high school, an early college, and a virtual academy. Families can enroll their children into Oxford Schools as school of choice students through 9th grade and into limited CTE slots in 10th-12th grades.
Prior to coming to Oxford Schools in 2000, Superintendent Tim Throne spent 11 years helping businesses and school districts implement information systems and decision-support systems. In his first 10 years with the district he was the Director of Technology, and then Executive Director of Strategic Initiatives & Technology for another four. The economy was in a decline for many of these years. It was then that the district looked at all parts of the organization for opportunities to customize and deliver service in a personalized manner. Then-superintendent, Bill Skilling, focused on making the district attractive to families in Oxford and the surrounding areas by providing choices for their children’s education. These choices increased Oxford’s enrollment by 1,800 students over a ten-year period. To sustain this enrollment, Tim uses his business background to focus on three main areas; hiring the right people, keeping customers as the focus, and leveraging technology to make the district more efficient.
The Right People
Putting the right people in the right positions is one factor that has led to Oxford’s success. Like Tim, many of Oxford’s administrative staff have come to the education field from pathways outside of education. The result is an out-of-the-educational-box mindset. The administration team approaches running the district similar to how managers run their companies. Hiring edupreneurs (i.e., entrepreneurs with a knowledge of education) or training staff to think like edupreneurs is a key component to providing the best possible education for their students.
Oxford views education as a service and strives to deliver high quality to all their customers (i.e. students). Because people are the deliverers of a service, they look for individuals with high integrity and a passion for helping all kids learn. They seek people who are good listeners, make customers feel important and want to engage, are relentless in providing the services kids need, and who go above and beyond state requirements to work with students and families.
In a business model, people buy a quality product or service. Entrepreneurs decide what to offer, how they will offer it, and how many people will buy it based on their research. This is the approach that Oxford Community Schools takes when they focus on providing great programming the students (and parents) who attend their schools want. When determining the programs to offer at Oxford the district studies the market for job demand, reviews articles and reports on up-and-coming careers, looks at Career and Technical Education funding which is determined by the Hot Jobs list, and seeks input from the students, parents, and local businesses through surveys and focus groups.
Students/Families = Customers
Through this process, Oxford has continued to add programs to meet the needs of a multitude of students in order to personalize education for every student. The district has 11 career pathways for students. Matt Johnson, Director of Marketing & Communications, is developing marketing materials to explain each of these pathways to help their customers choose the pathway that best meets their needs. Within the pathways, students can also choose the format for their learning. While some students choose the traditional brick-and-mortar setting, others prefer an online format or a blending of the two. Students like Lisa Sullivan’s daughter blended a variety of the programs offered by Oxford to personalize her education. She was a homeschooled student who took seated, online partnership and dual enrollment courses, all as a part-time student.
While families do not directly pay the district for their service in a public school system, they do “pay” by choosing a district. The exceptional programs offered by Oxford has allowed them to increase their School of Choice numbers thus increasing their revenue (Michigan school districts receive funding per pupil). Also, when half of the staff live outside the district but choose to enroll their children in Oxford, they must believe in the personalized quality education offered by the district.
Tim Throne is a strong proponent of leveraging technology so staff can spend more of their time with students. One way in which the district manages all their data is with Level Data. Level Data is a company that evaluates a district’s needs and then creates a customized solution for the district that takes into account state rules and regulations. Because every district has multiple data systems, Level Data finds solutions where the systems can talk with one another to create efficiencies for the district.
PowerSchool is one area in which Oxford is taking advantage of these efficiencies. Oxford uses PowerSchool to do more than just manage their student information. Additionally, PowerSchool tools are used to reduce the number of times the same data must be entered. For example, when an LMS like Moodle, Blackboard, or Google Classroom is used, teachers or IT staff must enter student and parent information even though it already resides in the student information system (SIS). Instead, Oxford has chosen to use the Haiku LMS, a PowerSchool tool that can communicate with Power School’s SIS to populate this data. This LMS is part of PowerSchool’s Unified Classroom, which includes a student information system, assessment, learning, analytics, special education, behavior, and grade book components. On the business management side, Oxford uses Skyward for the district’s human resources and business/finance functions.
The money saved through the reduction of data entry and login time has allowed the district to reinvest into other areas of the district, those that focus on the customer. The district has been able to grow programs and increase professional development and facilities spending from these savings, along with donations, matching grants, and additional CTE revenue streams over the last five years.
Oxford Community Schools’ success comes from hiring entrepreneurial thinkers who focus on customers’ (students) needs and leveraging technology to increase the time spent with their customers. Some of the quality programs offered by Oxford Community Schools to meet those needs through personalized learning are described below.
International Baccalaureate World School
Oxford is the only PreK-12 International Baccalaureate (IB) World School district in Michigan. While other districts may have a classroom, grade level, or building IB program, Oxford’s philosophy is “if it’s good for one student, it’s good for all students.” The program focuses on the whole child with a goal that students will learn for themselves (i.e., learn how to learn). The international focus of the program also ties well with their language instruction which begins in PreK (Spanish/Chinese).
The IB program uses a different thought process to learning which is ‘learn, reflect, learn.’ While Oxford uses their own curriculum/content, they design it with the IB inquiry and backward design structure. As students learn, they demonstrate their knowledge of the curriculum through action. Oxford is moving toward district-wide competency-based education and this demonstration also aligns with that model. Learning within all parts of Oxford’s traditional system is being influenced and changed by IB.
The IB learner profile begins in preschool and continues with them through all their years at Oxford. The outcome of the program is that students become more internationally minded, take action, and become better leaders and learners. At the elementary schools, fifth-grade students take action through a three-month, collaborative research project, and middle school students take action through a personal project. While every student pre-K through 10th grade is an IB student, they can choose to continue the IB program in 11th grade through the Diploma Programme. (see High School section).
Learning at the Middle School
On the east side of town, 1,200 Oxford Middle School students take a semester Project Lead the Way (PLTW) course. Natalie Daversa, the PLTW teacher who also teaches game design and business/careers classes for Oxford Virtual Academy, has 180 6th-8th grade students each semester. The PLTW pre-engineering sequence includes Design & Modeling (6th grade), Robotics & Automation (7th grade), and Science Technology (8th grade). Once students complete this series they have a basic knowledge of the design process, how technology is used in engineering to solve everyday problems, the mechanics of motion, the conversion of energy, and the use of science and technology to improve communication. Those interested in engineering can further their studies at the high school.
One lesson in the Design & Modeling course requires students to create a house in Inventor software. After designing their homes, students rotate from computer to computer as a gallery-type walk. They then vote on the best-designed house through Google Forms with the winner having his or her design 3D printed. Another project is for students to design ‘Oxford Schools’ in 3D block letters similar to the “Hollywood” sign in California. Students are asked to envision their designed letters on a hill in their community. Ms. Daversa also collaborates with middle school teachers to integrate other subjects into the PLTW courses.
Teachers at the middle school have the opportunity to co-teach. Daily grade-level common planning time and weekly professional development attribute to this model’s success. Andrew McDonald and Jennifer Croteau, sixth-grade science teachers, co-teach 64 students. They use the library to gather their students for unit/lesson introductions and wrap-ups as well as gallery walks, while the hands-on science experiments are completed in their own rooms. The common planning time provides the teachers time to share strategies, keep at the same pace, and support one another. During a lesson, one teacher teaches and the other monitors the room. This co-teaching model also allows students to work on big projects with students from other classes.
Science conversation starters are posted in the library for gallery walk days. These starters include inquiry questions for students such as, “Is there a more logical inference we might make in this situation?” or “Is there more than one way to solve this problem?” Students may also share why they agree or disagree and ask questions about what is presented or being done by other students. In the combined classroom, students have a broader group of peers in which to have these deeper conversations.
High School IB and Mechatronics
On the north end of town, Oxford High School delivers a variety of academic studies to prepare students for college and careers. In addition to rigorous core courses, students can enroll in the IB Diploma Programme, Early College, International or Dance Conservatory programs and take AP, dual enrollment, or Career and Technical Education (CTE) courses. Every 9th-grade student enrolls in an online year-long career and college prep soft skills writing class. Of the 1,821 students enrolled in 2017-18, 40% of Oxford’s students take CTE courses and almost 12% are in Early College.
Students who choose the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (DP) continue their IB curriculum beyond 10th grade. In this programme, students become lifelong learners as they learn to be critical and compassionate thinkers. This is done through the DP core and six subject groups. Within the DP core, students reflect on the question “How do we know?”, write a 4,000-word independent essay paper, and complete a creativity, activity, or service project. Each student prepares a portfolio of their work. This two-year, comprehensive curriculum culminates with an IB Diploma which is recognized by colleges and universities around the world. Since 2012, 84 Oxford students have chosen to receive this diploma.
Students who thrived in the middle school pre-engineering PLTW courses have the option to continue this path in Oxford’s Mechatronics program at the high school. The program is taught by STEM teacher Phil Kimmel, a mechanical engineer who previously worked for Chrysler. Mechatronics focuses on the design process and integrates mechanical engineering, electronics, computer engineering, telecommunications engineering, systems engineering and control engineering. In their first course, Mechatronics I, students learn the design cycle and basic engineering. In Mechatronics II, students spend the first semester building big robots and the second semester studying fluid power, CNC, and welding. They also compete in the Oakland County Competitive Robotics Association (OCCRA) competition. Students can dual enroll in a four-credit Lawrence Technological University course. Since Mr. Kimmel is an adjunct faculty professor for Lawrence Tech, students can take the course on Oxford’s campus. A fourth course students can take in the Mechatronics program is the Senior Capstone Design course. While geared for seniors, advanced juniors may enroll and become independent study mentors during their senior year.
Hands-on, interactive learning could be used to describe the Mechatronics program. One of the units students study in Mechatronics I includes a class VEX Robotics Tournament. Teams of three students receive a VEX starter kit. They can choose to build the entire kit, modify the kit, or design their own robot using the VEX as a base. In a bracket-style competition, teams have two minutes to get the most small round balls and footballs on their competitor’s side of the ring. Teams can modify their robot and software program between matches. In addition to learning how to design, students are learning problem-solving skills when their design doesn’t work like they thought it would. Working in teams also gives them an opportunity to practice this necessary soft skill for the job market.
Oxford’s Mechatronics program is the most successful program offered at the high school, but also the most expensive to provide. Like other added-cost programs, the state uses a new formula for funding which looks at three factors. The first is how much it costs to run a program, based on the previous three years. Since this is a newer program, this factor is more complicated to calculate. A second factor is where the program falls on Michigan’s Hot 50 jobs list. The higher the demand for the jobs, the more funding the program receives. Lastly, the state looks at where students are within the program. The funding a district receives is dependent on a student’s status of participant, concentrator, or completer. The district receives CFE (Career Focused Education) funds (i.e., Perkins) distributed from their ISD for this program as well.
Oxford Community Schools Career and Technical Education Programs
In addition to Mechatronics, the district offers nine other state-approved Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs. One of these CTE programs is their Broadcasting class. A professional studio is set up in the school where students learn skills necessary for TV and radio broadcasting. Students gain experience in lighting, directing, graphics, prompter, audio, and on-air talent as they deliver the daily announcements and monthly magazine-style news show, Wildcat Weekend.
The Oxford International Program (OIP) provides students an opportunity to learn in teams with peers from around the world. Not only do students from OIP’s sister schools in China, Mexico, England, and South Africa come to Oxford to participate, the program is open to any student from around the globe. These students become immersed in American culture and participate in all that Oxford Schools has to offer. Domestic students are also encouraged to study abroad through an exchange program.
Oxford Schools Early College
Oxford Schools Early College (OSEC) is a five-year option for students who want to earn up to an associate’s degree at no cost while still in high school. College tuition, fees, and textbooks are paid for by the school. OSEC courses may be taken at Oxford High School, Rochester College’s campus, Macomb Community College’s campus, through Oxford Virtual Academy, or a combination of these. Oxford students can earn an Associate of Arts degree from Rochester College or any associate degree from Macomb Community College or Washtenaw Community College. Rochester College also provides scholarships to students to complete their Bachelor’s degree at Rochester if they successfully complete the OSEC program with a B-average.
About 25-30% of the 215 OSEC students are completely virtual. In fact, Oxford Schools is the only district in the state where students can be virtual students from kindergarten through their 13th year. Full-time OSEC virtual students can use the drop-in lab at Oxford Virtual Academy and Oxford High School while Oxford High School students use the drop-in lab in their building. In 2017-18, 82 OSEC students enrolled in CTE pathways like marketing, IT, finance, and automotive. Student supports and student activities available to Oxford High School and Oxford Virtual Academy students are also accessible for Oxford Schools Early College students. This includes National Honor Society, all school sports, clubs, activities, dances, and events.
Every OSEC student completes a senior capstone course during their 5th year. This class revolves around a community service project that they develop and run throughout the year. At the end of the year, there is a Gala Walk where students share their projects with each other, the school, and community. One very successful senior project was Oxford Gives Back Spring Cleanup. The OSEC student organized and ran a yard cleanup event for those in need (e.g., the elderly, disabled, etc.). This included getting the word out, signing up yards to be cleaned, registering volunteers (all 800 of them!), and promoting the event. The event provided a great opportunity for the students, the school district, and the community to connect. Another senior organized a car show to raise money for ALS.
Oxford Schools Early College is ranked 17th in the state for early college schools. They earned a bronze medal from U.S. News & World Report based on their performance on state-required tests and how well they prepare students for college. A factor in the success of their early college program is due to the professional development and networking opportunities available through their membership in MEMCA (Michigan Early/Middle College Association).
Oxford Bridges High School
Oxford Bridges High School, their alternative academic program, is housed in the middle school building with a separate entrance for its students. The school has 50-60 students in 10-12th grades. To be eligible to enroll in Bridges, students must be behind in credits and are not on track to graduate. Each student receives a personalized, planned program that leads to a diploma. The family/community environment allows students the opportunity to be accepted and supported so they can achieve success in their educational endeavors.
In addition to three core teachers (math, ELA, and social studies) who assist students through their individual programs, students have access to an ELL support person. Courses are designed around hands-on curriculum and assessment (i.e., a project-based model). Ninth-grade credit recovery courses in all subjects are available. Students who take virtual courses work in the staffed online learning lab. A shuttle bus runs between the high school and Bridges at the beginning and end of each day so students can participate in elective courses like languages and CTE. Students also have the option to attend O Tech (Oakland Schools Technical Campuses).
Oxford Virtual Academy
Oxford Schools began Oxford Virtual Academy (OVA) in 2011 and has grown to over 2,200 students in 2017-18. OVA programs provide customized rigorous academics directed by the parent and mentor teacher to meet the needs of each individual student. OVA believes that education is the shared responsibility of student, school, family, and community. They strive to maintain positive relationships with these stakeholders based on trust and the shared belief that the student always comes first.
The focus of putting students first is apparent at Oxford Virtual Academy. Students who enroll have a variety of options for their learning. They can be full-time or part-time students and take courses in a manner that works for them including virtual, seated, dual enrollment, college, and partnership courses. Students are matched with course providers that best meet their individual needs. Because OVA works to personalize education for every one of their students, many homeschool students enroll as well as students whose lives do not fit into a Monday-Friday 8 am-3 pm box. These students include athletes, artists, and those with disabilities that keep them from succeeding in the traditional school setting.
Another group that is being serviced by OVA is foster youth. Oxford School District has partnered with House of Providence, a home for teen foster youth. Teens who live there take four online core courses with OVA and are supported by the House of Providence staff. Non-core courses like yoga and pottery are also available through Oxford Virtual Academy’s partnerships. As these youth work through their painful pasts and learn to live, OVA is providing an avenue to continue their education without the stress and anxiety that attending “another” school can bring.
Helping students successfully complete courses is the goal for OVA staff. The K-12 staff meet every Friday for professional development and to look at data, specifically as it relates to students. Similar to brick-and-mortar teachers, OVA teacher use response to intervention (RTI) to assist their students. The difference in the online environment is that the focus is on course completion and the tools needed to be successful rather than behavior. One tool used to help students stay on track and take ownership of their learning is a learning contract. The OVA staff are passionate about helping their students succeed which shows in their course completion rate of 84%, the highest in the State of Michigan on the “top-to-bottom list.”
Oxford Virtual Academy offers two drop-in labs for their students. The K-5 lab opened in 2016-17 while the 6-12 lab has been available for students since 2011. Both labs are located in a strip mall on the south side of town, not far from the administration building. The drop-in labs have a homey feel to them with moveable furniture to accommodate groups as well as individual learning. “We’ve come so far from the pencil cup and laptops back in 2011.” Tracey Hurford, 3-5 Elementary Mentor/Content Teacher for Math & ELA, said about the lab space. Oxford Virtual Academy and Oxford Schools Early College administrative offices are housed in the K-5 facility. The lab areas have also been used for professional development.
Two K-5 full-time staff (one for grades K-2 and one for grades 3-5) coach parents, assist with interventions and find the “extras” students need. Students in 6th-12th grade have four full-time core teachers and two mentor teachers. The teachers/mentors work 3-4 days in the drop-in lab and 1-2 days from home. Elective teachers connect with students virtually. A K-12 special education teacher is also on staff. In addition to teachers, OVA staff includes a principal, an assistant principal, a social worker, an instructional coach, a 6th-12th-grade counselor, and a school psychologist.
The K-5 virtual program is blended where students learn content online as well as face-to-face. Parents are welcome to drop off their children which is uncommon for partnerships with homeschool families. As the Oxford staff builds trust with these families over time, parents are more comfortable congregating in the lounge space or running errands. Unique opportunities for K-5 virtual students include Coding Club, Reading Club, Tech Design, and partnerships courses in the community such as photography, karate, and sewing. Traditional Oxford “seated” students have participated in some of these courses as well.
Most students in the 6-12 program work in their own spaces (e.g., at home), but some come to the drop-in lab for exams or when they need face-to-face help. A small percentage of students attend the lab every day. OVA provides a variety of curriculum in the 6-12 program including Pearson Connexus, Edgenuity, Apex, Lincoln, and Calvert. Students who are unsure if a vendor is right for them can sample course content through a demo class before enrolling.
Oxford Community Schools has developed a menu of learning options focused on their customers. They have also hired staff with a passion to meet every customers’ needs and invested in technology that allows more interaction time with the customer. These components, combined with flexibility, provide students a personalized path for their learning.
Author: Lisa Sitkins, Consultant for EdTech Specialists, March 2018