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School district to expand Infinity Academy


— The idea originated last year with two teachers at Paul R. Smith Middle//,// in Holiday.

Carolyn Erickson and Kailin Santerre wanted to pilot a program that would blend online and classroom learning, and allow students to work at their own pace, moving quickly through material they mastered or spending extra time on lessons they struggled with.

Principal Margie Fackelman said do it. The Infinity Academy proved such a success that the Pasco County School District plans to expand it to Zephyrhills High and Stewart Middle for the 2014-15 academic year.

“We are very excited about it,” said Shae Davis, principal at Stewart Middle.

Students selected for the academy tend to be on the high-performing, motivated side. They work online using a curriculum supplied by Pasco eSchool, but also have teachers in their classroom with them, creating that blend of virtual learning and traditional learning.

A student particularly adept at geometry, for example, might not need the entire year to finish that course, and could move on to Algebra II ahead of schedule, said Andy Frelick, principal at Zephyrhills High.

The opposite is true when students encounter tough material that takes them longer to master. It’s the student who says, “I’m ready to take the test,” rather than the teacher setting a date. Proponents say it’s a way for students to take ownership of their learning.

Parents also must be active. The program requires that at least once a month there is contact between parent and teacher.

Because of the online component, technology plays a key role. Each student is assigned a laptop computer for the year that can be taken home.

It’s not a nose-to-computer-screen curriculum, though. There is plenty of one-on-one work between teacher and student, and students working together in groups.

“We don’t want it to go into like a laboratory environment where you are just putting a kid in front of a computer and you are having them go through the coursework,” Fackelman said on a video the school district created about the program.

District administrators, happy with what was happening at Smith Middle, figured the Infinity Academy could be just as popular if offered at Zephyrhills High and Stewart Middle on the opposite side of the county.

They made the right guess.

The schools received far more applications than they had spots, said Monica Ilse, a district learning community executive director.

Stewart Middle will have the larger program, with 75 students. The middle school is offering the academy to all three grades, but Zephyrhills High will limit it to just freshmen the first year and will have 25 students, Ilse said.

Davis said she anticipated students and parents would be intrigued, but even she was surprised by the level of interest.

“We had 400 students apply,” she said. “It was a difficult process making the selections.”

She said several factors came into play, such as student test scores, attendance records and teacher recommendations. Stewart Middle also had the applicants write an essay saying why they thought they would be a good fit for the program.

One of Paul R. Smith Middle’s Infinity students was featured in a video shown last week at River Ridge High during the school district’s annual Leadership Week that brings together principals, assistant principals and district administrators.

Emily Cannon had a particularly tough eighth-grade year. She was homeless and had to move from a house to an apartment, to a hotel and eventually to St. Petersburg.

All the while she kept up her studies through the Infinity Academy, which allowed her to follow her lessons online even when she could not make it to the Smith Middle classroom. Without Infinity, Cannon said, she probably would not have been promoted to ninth-grade because she would have missed too much work.

“I am so thankful for this program,” she said, “because it means the world to me and a little bit more than that.”