(reimaginED) – High school sophomore Eli George plans to pursue a career in finance or engineering, and he wants to get in as many STEM courses as possible before graduation. But he also must fulfill the state’s requirements to earn a high school diploma.
In New Hampshire, where his family lives, that means logging a physical education credit. The 15-year-old had completed an adventure course, but he needed another P.E. course by the end of his junior year, which crowded his schedule and left him unable to take an advanced computer science elective.
“He wanted to broaden his education,” said his father, Shawn George.
Eli was able to do that, thanks to an innovative program the New Hampshire Legislature approved in 2018. Called Learn Everywhere, the program allows students to earn credits outside the classroom while pursuing their interests at state-approved providers in their communities.
Here’s how it works. Students who complete programs approved by the state board of education receive a competition certificate, which they can submit to their schools. The school must accept the coursework for credit, freeing the student to opt out of the corresponding school class so he or she can take a different class.
Eli, who with his father has practiced martial arts at a local dojo for six years, satisfied his P.E. requirement by coming for lessons three times a week.
“It’s a good opportunity for the student and the school,” said the elder George, who learned about Learn Everywhere from his sensei, Aaron Cass, a fifth-degree black belt who teaches high school English in a nearby community.
The dojo only recently got approved as an education provider and Eli is its first student, but Cass praised the program and hopes to see more students participate.
“The biggest challenge is how to get the word out,” said Cass, who added a page about Learn Everywhere to his website.
That effort includes informing district schools, including some that have been slow to understand the new legislation that mandates the awarding of credit to students who meet the requirements.
“We went back and forth for about a month with his guidance counselor, who talked to the principal and said, ‘We don’t have extended learning,’” Cass said.
State Department of Education officials interceded, reaching out to the superintendent and clarifying that the program was mandated by state law. The district finally awarded Eli his P.E. credit.
Because the program is new and just now being broadly marketed, the situation isn’t unusual, said Timothy Carney, educational pathways administrator for the New Hampshire Department of Education’s Bureau of Education Opportunities, which administers the Learn Everywhere program.
The coronavirus pandemic and a resulting lack of resources delayed state efforts to get the program up to full speed after a contentious approval process. That meant fewer education options and fewer students in the beginning.
Carney’s job is to help change that. He is meeting with school district leaders and potential Learn Everywhere providers to spread the word about the law and the opportunities it creates for schools, community organizations and students.
“Some of the feedback I got from providers was that they hadn’t heard anything from the DOE since (Learn Everywhere) got approved,” Carney said. “They had a number of questions, and so they hadn’t been very aggressive.”
As for districts that questioned students’ completion certificates, “the Department hadn’t done a lot of outreach to explain what the program was,” Carney said.
After Carney’s outreach, most districts came around quickly. “It was just a disconnect,” Carney said.
News stories from 2019 detail the major controversy that ensued when the state board of education was considering rules to govern Learn Everywhere. Democrats and teacher unions strongly opposed the program, saying it stripped control from local districts, some of which had established their own extended learning programs.
Those groups also questioned allowing non-certified teachers to be instructors for credit-granting programs. But the state program, which Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut proposed after observing an evening robotics club at a school, was a way to extend opportunities that were available to students in only some districts statewide.
In 2020, the state board ultimately approved the rules after a yearlong delay caused by the challenges.
Today, Learn Everywhere has 12 approved programs, ranging from Sylvan Learning Center to the Russian School of Mathematics to Friends Forever International, which includes training in leadership and global understanding.
Uptime Esports, which operates a middle and high school extended learning program at one of its three locations in partnership with the local school district, is a recent addition to the Learn Everywhere roster and teaches a variety of skills relevant in the job market.
“They learn about gaming and other things,” Uptime Esports co-founder Tim Schneider said. “They learn PC building, social media awareness and game design. A lot of things in our gaming program are tied to STEM-based learning, so there’s a lot of people who are into these topics.”
Plus, Schneider said, a lot of colleges have established esports teams and offer scholarships to the best players.
Carney is continuing to recruit providers among community groups. For example, a church with a strong choral program could offer music credits. That could help a student who wanted to take a music class at school but whose schedule was too full of required core classes.
To address critics’ concerns about quality, the program must meet certain standards and outlines the skills students must show mastery of to earn the credits. The provider is also required to show how it will accommodate students with disabilities to gain state approval.
Some bugs remain. Not all provider offerings are free, which drew criticism from opponents who argued that lower-income students wouldn’t be able to participate. At least at this time, none of New Hampshire’s three education choice scholarship programs, including an Education Freedom Account Program, allow funds to be spent on Learn Everywhere programs.
Some providers do offer financial aid to qualifying families, though, and Carney is looking for a funding source to help lower-income families.
‘We’re hoping to be seen as a resource rather than a threat,” he said.
For a list of frequently asked questions about Learn Everywhere, click here.
This article originally appeared at reimaginED.