During the coming winter months in Harlan County there’s the distinct possibility, on some days, school buses won’t run, classrooms will be empty, hallways will be clear, but students will still be in school.
It means our teachers and students are ready for an NTI Day.
For years, educators in Kentucky looked for a way to allow school to continue even when the schools themselves had to be closed due to weather or other emergencies.
Four years ago, the state legislature approved a plan to test “Non-Traditional Instruction” (NTI) at a limited number of school districts to see if they could continue to conduct school through virtual classes or other means on days that the district would have normally had to call school off.
The test proved successful and last year the legislature passed a law giving all districts the opportunity to apply for up to 10 of these days each year. Of the 173 school district in the state, 44 are currently approved, including Harlan County and Harlan Independent.
Because their applications for the program were approved this year, local students can expect an addition to the school system’s “All-Call” messaging system when the weather gets bad – an “NTI Day.”
These announcements will also be made on local radio stations and the county will also post them on the school district’s Facebook page.
“For the last two years, we’ve had to close our schools for several days or weeks at a time because of snow and bitter cold,” said Mike Howard, Superintendent of Harlan County Schools. “This not only disrupted instruction but it also extends the school year.
“We then wind up having the juggle the schedule later to work around some problems,” he added, “maybe take Spring Break away and disrupt personal plans, or complicate many graduation activities. The NTI approach opens up a lot of options for us to avoid many of these issues.
“However, an NTI Day will not necessarily be called on the first day school is cancelled for snow,” Howard stressed. “Our district will use NTI on days that are not deemed to be extremely hazardous.”
Of course, the school district must also prove to the Kentucky Department of Education that their alternative plans for teaching and learning during these days actually work.
In the spring, districts must submit documentation of student and faculty participation, as well as measurements of student learning for the missed days. The state will then determine the number of regular attendance days they will grant.
The key to success with the program is to uphold high standards, be consistent across all schools in the district, while also being flexible to changing circumstances, school officials say.
“An NTI Day allows us to deliver a variety of instruction through different platforms to students at home,” said Brent Roark, assistant superintendent for curriculum development at Harlan County Schools.
“It really falls on the teachers to do their work ahead of time,” he noted. “We’ve spent a lot of time together working on these projects so that students in our district, no matter what school they attend, will get the same lesson designed for their grade level.”
Because the optimal delivery method for these lessons is by computer over the internet, local school officials were greatly concerned about the ability of students across the county to be “wired in” to receive the lessons.
Last week, Roark told his board of education members that he “was shocked” when he learned the results of a student survey which indicated 90 percent of them had internet service at home, and that “90 percent of those say the service is good or better.”
“I honestly expected it to be about 70 percent,” Roark told the board.
For students are who unable to use the internet at home, packets have been designed and will be available on December 1. Parents should not expect these lesson packets to include worksheets, as the district actively sought to design lessons that were “project-oriented” rather than “task-oriented,” Roark noted.
“They may not necessarily even have a sheet to turn in when they get back to the classroom,” he said.
Teachers are required to maintain open lines of communication with parents on each NTI Day during the hours they would have been at school. Some teachers may opt to be in their school on those days since they need to be available to students via internet (using school district email or chat through the online instructional CourseSites by Blackboard) and by phone. Teachers will then submit a communication log following each of these days as part of the documentation report to the state.
At the elementary level, the instructional plans are multi-disciplinary projects and at the high school the content is going to be course-specific, Roark said.
Students are required to complete all tasks assigned during an NTI Day. In case of internet problems or other interruptions, students will have up to five days to turn in all their work assigned to them for an NTI Day, Roark said.