School boards watching closely as Learn Everywhere gets rolling

Controversial extended-learning program gives public school students alternative ways to earn credits

By: - August 4, 2021 5:36 am
A small ladder is placed against a stack of hardcover textbooks

Learn Everywhere is kicking off in earnest this school year. (Getty Images)

Shashank Dubey was never interested in the education business. Then his son came home from elementary school with spelling homework.

Each week, Dubey’s son would be assigned 20 words and a test for whether he could spell them. Then, the test would be repeated a week later after the students had time to practice the words.

Dubey liked the repetition of the approach. But he was frustrated at the rigidity of the course. Often his son would already know how to spell the words listed. He needed a more customized list that could let him excel.

It was the spark that eventually prompted Dubey and his wife, Archana, to launch their own education program in New Hampshire for spelling and math. Not a school, exactly, but an extracurricular class setting that prioritized individual challenge and instruction. 

“We are not teachers, we are more like coaches, because we can work with every student and figure out what (is) the study focus we want them to have for each week,” Dubey said. 

Twenty years later, the Dubeys’ venture – a New Hampshire franchise of the national after-school education network Kumon – has grown into two franchises, in Bedford and Nashua.

And starting this year, the program is set to function a lot more like traditional school. 

The Dubeys’ Kumon schools are among the first participants in New Hampshire’s new Learn Everywhere program, a new state venture that allows public school students to sign up for approved programs outside of the classroom and receive public school credit.

Under the program, students who attend programs approved by the State Board of Education, including Kumon, can go to their schools and demonstrate that they have completed the out-of-school course. At that point, schools must accept the coursework for credit, freeing the public school student to opt out of the corresponding class in school and take a different class. 

The program, which had been opposed by school boards and bogged down by an attempt to stop its launch when Democrats controlled the Legislature, is kicking off in earnest this school year, with six total programs approved so far. 

School districts have complained that it takes away local control of the curriculum by mandating that schools accept credits approved by the State Board of Education. School choice advocates say the program is an opportunity for students to diversify their learning opportunities, without local red tape.

Now, after a year on hold due to Democratic opposition in the State House, the program is up and running. Supporters and skeptics are watching closely. 

For the Dubeys, the new credits program will not change the way they teach at Kumon. Children whose families pay for the Kumon program will still be able to take personalized math and reading courses and move through subject materials, from arithmetic to calculus, Dubey said. The difference: Those students who are successful may now use their participation to opt out of similar math or reading classes in their K-12 schools.

Dubey argues it’s a win-win for students and public school teachers. 

“I am amongst the people who have a great deal of admiration for our teachers,” Dubey said. “Most of the time, from my perception, the teacher is trying to teach the average student, which means, you know, half the class is challenged and half the class is bored.” 

Specialized, after-school instruction programs that replace school credits could help reduce that classroom tension, Dubey argued.

Other Learn Everywhere organizations have crafted more targeted programs, aimed at older students.

In Lyme, one laboratory has dazzled budding scientists for a century. The New Hampshire Academy of Science operates a STEM lab packed with specialized equipment comparable to leading universities. 

Hyperspectral cameras allow students to carry out drone analysis of fertilizer levels on farms. High-performance liquid chromatography machines can analyze chemicals in any type of solution. Advanced computer models allow observation of the spike protein on the novel coronavirus. 

For high school students interested in biology or chemistry, the equipment – and the programs designed around it – can be a life-changing opportunity.

“The problem nationally is for students to really get into STEM careers, they need to start early,” said Peter Faletra, the academy’s executive director. “And if they don’t, they’re playing catch-up all the way through college.”

Every year, the federal-grant-supported academy runs intensive summer and after-school programs allowing several dozen high school students to learn the basics of research and study design. Some students produce experiments that become peer-reviewed by professional scientists; that work brings some of the students to an international meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science to present their findings. 

Graduates of the program – all of whom are choosing to study there – have often needed little help to succeed academically. Many move on to leading universities, bolstered by their work on independent research projects.

But the academy’s approval in the Learn Everywhere program means that those students can now eliminate redundant science classes in their public high schools, a boon of its own, Faletra argued.

And the academy’s application process has helped instructors more closely align courses with high school science curricula. 

“You’re going to be on a slightly different track than everybody else if you want to do Learn Everywhere, and that means your (research) proposal that you would typically submit is going to be a little bit more detailed, a little bit more rigorous,” Faletra said. 

So far, the participating organizations are diverse. One, North Main Music, will offer music classes to students in the Nashua area. Another, the Seacoast Science Center, will allow students of its marine biology course to replace science credits. 

At Signum University, administrators are banking on a different enticement: the internet. Signum, an online university based in Bedford, will offer a range of courses tailored to high school students and accessible to anyone in the state. Those include languages that range from modern Romance languages to Old English, which Signum president Corey Olsen says will likely outnumber the options available in most public schools. 

“We’re able to kind of really work closely with both really high-achieving students, and students who are struggling as well,” Olsen said. “So far it has been more of the highly motivated folks who are interested in learning other (languages).” 

For all their potential, the Learn Everywhere programs share one complicating characteristic: They aren’t free. Kumon’s instruction comes out to about $100 a month per child. Programs in the New Hampshire Academy of Science can range from $600 to $3,000, depending on the course and duration. Signum courses are $90 a month per student. 

Program heads at most of the organizations, including Kumon and the Academy of Science, say they offer some financial aid packages. Others, such as Olsen at Signum, said they would consider offering aid if Learn Everywhere generated new interest. 

As programs jump aboard, stakeholders on both sides of the debate say it’s too early to judge the results. 

Progress in setting up the program has been slower than anticipated, said Drew Cline, the chairman of the State Board of Education. A decision by Democrats on the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules to oppose the suggested rules for the program – arguing that the rules should allow local school boards to have a say – delayed applications by a year. 

The rules went into effect in 2020 after the New Hampshire Department of Education chose to move forward on them despite the formal objection of the Administrative Rules committee. 

A year later, the Learn Everywhere programs that have been approved are just now accepting students. And as schools prepare to return to classrooms in late August and early September, administrators are still waiting to hear from students who are looking to apply credits they’ve earned outside of the classroom.

Exactly how smoothly the schools and programs will work together is an open question. 

While schools do not have the ability to refuse credits, and school boards cannot approve or reject the organizations issuing them, school administrators do have leeway over how much a credit can count toward a course, and for which courses the credits can qualify.

A program that straddles two subjects, for instance, could prove a challenge. An organization merging literature and history could feasibly produce a credit that could qualify for either course in a high school. It will be up to school administrators to determine how to apply those, on a student-by-student basis. 

Those situations should be rare, Cline argued. Learn Everywhere is designed to cater to programs that offer classes that could fully substitute for a course in a school. 

But because schools’ teaching approaches and curricula can vary from district to district, there could still be some deliberation over how best to honor the credits.

“I think that sort of we’re going to be where the rubber is going to meet the road,” said Barrett Christina, executive director of the New Hampshire School Board Association. “U.S. history is not the same in every school district. There are different curriculums, there are different competencies that students have to reach. Different expectations for that course.”

Those complications are one reason why the NHSBA opposed Learn Everywhere, pushing instead for a model in which individual school boards had a say over whether to approve the programs for credit. 

“It was removing local school boards from having control over their own local programs and the diplomas that the local school districts issue,” Christina said. “Instead it was the state, in our view, overstepping its bounds.”

Christina and others also raised the question of fairness: In a new system where some students can attend programs that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars and obtain credits, others may feel left behind. 

But supporters have countered by pointing to financial aid assistance available for some students. And they’ve contended that giving local school boards a veto power over Learn Everywhere programs could stymie the programs from the start and prevent organizations from participating.  

“If we had devised a system where the local school district could say no to these credits, then the program never would have gotten off the ground,” Cline said. 

For now, it is difficult to judge the programs’ early success on numbers alone. Many have just recently become accredited. Others say there hasn’t been a major marketing push for the program.

But for supporters, Learn Everywhere still has plenty of room to grow. Other facilities and organizations have expressed interest in creating and marketing courses, Cline said.

“We expect that the real ability to reach kids all across the state, especially in communities that don’t have as many opportunities, is going to not be as readily apparent at first, because you’re only going to have a smattering of programs,” Cline said. 

“It’s going to take time to scale this up.”

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.