Who is at the helm of Douglas County's online learning?

Director of e-learning speaks to community concerns

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The Douglas County School District's online learning program is up and running after a rough start to the school year.

The program, called “eLearning,” is the 100% online learning option being offered as an alternative to “hybrid learning,” where students attend two days in-person and three online.

Staffing shortages, technical issues and in-flux student rosters resulted in a last-minute delay to the start of classes — from Aug. 24 to Aug. 31 — for the roughly 6,300 DCSD students enrolled in full online instruction this semester.

So, who is the person at the helm of 6,300 student's online education? Diane Smith, selected as director of eLearning, stepped into her new role on Aug. 3.

Smith said she understands frustrations from students and families about the delay and other obstacles to online learning, but she wants people to know education is her passion, and she believes a delay was the best choice in the long run for schools.

She comes to the job with roughly 40 years of experience in education.

That includes 16 years as an elementary school teacher in the Cherry Creek School District and 17 years as a principal in both the Douglas County and Denver school districts. Along the way she helped open Fox Creek Elementary in Highlands Ranch.

“David Ray and I opened schools at the same time,” she said of the school board president, also a former educator.

Smith also spent time as a director of schools and a roughly two-year stint at the Center for Educational Leadership at the University of Washington. She returned to the Douglas County School District in July 2019, working in the curriculum department, before her transition into her current role.

Tackling new role

Smith acknowledged that nowhere on her resume is experience overseeing full online education.

“No, not directly,” she said. “I just know schools so well and how education works, and I'm also fairly techy.”

Smith said she wanted to address concerns raised by community members as confusion shrouded the start to online classes.

“I know sometimes people feel like we lied, and I really want to speak to that just a little bit,” she said. “Any time we told people things, we told them with the knowledge that we had at that moment. And when you get new information you have to adjust, and when you adjust, I think sometimes people feel like, 'Now I've been lied to.'”

Leading up to the e-learning delay, the local teachers union raised alarms about schools' readiness to begin online classes.

Some Douglas County Federation members reported they did not know what classes they were teaching, did not have logins for the online curriculum and did not have final student rosters, President Kallie Leyba said on Aug. 21, the Friday before classes were initially set to start.

Leyba said the public and board directors did not have a true picture of the issues plaguing online learning, calling the district ill-prepared to launch its e-learning program.

The biggest hurdle was the sheer number of students who enrolled in the e-learning option, matched by a daunting hiring push, Smith said.

District requested patience

Superintendent Thomas Tucker told Colorado Community Media the district did not expect so many students to enroll in e-learning. He asked the community for patience on the first day of online classes as the district continued working through kinks in the new program.

Smith said district surveys conducted in June provided some idea of what schools could expect for online enrollment. Roughly 10% of respondents indicated they would choose the online learning option, she said, noting that 6,300 students is not far from 10% of the 68,000-student district.

But until final enrollment numbers were in, the district did not know how many classes or teaching positions it was planning for, Smith said. The deadline for families to choose between hybrid and e-learning was early August.

“There are many things you can't start to do until you know who you are doing it with. You can't hire teachers for an unknown number of jobs,” she said. “That's why it feels like a mad dash scramble.”

The district tackled hiring in four phases, she said.

The first core group of e-learning teachers was identified through educators who requested an accommodation for diabilities. She estimated that was between 60 and 80 teachers.

Phase two involved assessing how many teachers were needed at each school based on the number of hybrid students. With fewer students in buildings because of the two learning models, some building educators were reassigned from hybrid teaching to e-learning, Smith said.

Phase three came as the district looked at what e-learning classes it needed to offer, including AP courses and electives. That's where the district began to realize class sizes were what Smith called unacceptable, and they delayed the start to e-learning by one week.

The fourth phase came during the week-long delay, with a final hiring effort, Smith. The districted hired an additional 10 teachers at the elementary level and close to 15 more at the middle school level.

Smith did not know how many additional teachers were hired that week among district-run high schools. After the delay, the district also shifted control of the e-learning program to high school principals for their buildings.

Curriculum process slow

Problems arose with the online curriculum, called Edgenuity, when some teachers still did not have login access by Aug. 21, the Friday before classes were set to start.

Smith believes the volume of teachers being hired in Douglas County schools, paired with a broader increase in demand for Edgenuity as other districts bolstered online education during the pandemic, created a backlog at the company.

The district could set up access for teachers in grades 6-12 but not at the K-5 level, she said. Based on the volume of business, Edgenuity anticipated a week's delay in getting new teachers into the system, she said.

“During that time, I know Dr. Tucker talked to the company multiple times. I know our other staff talked to the company multiple times,” she said. “We were trying to work so hard with them.”

Moving forward, Smith asked for patience as e-learning continues, and hopes teachers stay encouraged as they work through future challenges.

“We are going to have technological issues and those kinds of things, but what they need to think about is what they know how to do best, and that's teach,” she said. “We know they are working absolutely as hard as they can.”

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