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Digital learning in a rural district

Virtual learning has long been the norm for this small, rural district in the Navajo nation. Four strategies it uses to make sure students are successful.

4 min read


Digital learning in a rural district


It’s hard to believe how much the world has changed in just a few short weeks. As difficult as this experience has been and will continue to be, I am trying to focus on the positive. 

One of our positives, one of our bright spots, has been the digital curriculum that we use from Apex Learning. We use Apex for our credit recovery program, and some college prep and foreign language coursework. It’s been in place for some time so when we had to move to full virtual instruction, it was a fairly smooth, simple process. This is important. We are a small rural district in Fort Defiance, Arizona — Window Rock Unified School District in the Navajo nation — and we serve a unique population of students and families. We needed to ensure that learning would be productive and support achievement goals. Here’s what we did to make that happen.

  1. Set high expectations — and hold students accountable to them.The early days of our digital learning program consisted of very little structure and a low level of rigor. Some of our students would even skip class because they knew that even if they failed, they could take an easy online course to make up the credit. When students did make up a course using digital curriculum, they did not absorb the content or leave the course prepared for what came next. For that reason, we restructured our digital program with a focus on student accountability. We set clear expectations for everyone. We now require students and parents to sign a contract stating that students must achieve a mastery level of at least 75%. If they fall below 75 percent, students must commit to tutoring three times per week until they achieve it. The goal is for students to feel challenged and also supported. 
  2. Engage students with a rigorous curriculumMany of our students face challenges outside of school that can affect their motivation and engagement. This was true even before the COVID-19 crisis, but it’s even more prevalent now. Students may have minimal support at home, if their parents have little educational background or had a bad experience with the school system. Some students live with grandparents who only speak the Navajo language or know very little English and can’t help with schoolwork. We knew we needed a rigorous curriculum that would deliver a rich experience and meet students’ individual needs. The curriculum had to effectively engage even our most hard-to-reach students. We knew that keeping students motivated would go a long way toward their success.
  3. Celebrate successes — large and smallI am a big believer in celebrating milestones — both large and small — to keep students motivated. One way I do this is with a “data wall” in my classroom that illustrates student progress on a quarterly basis. We have since converted it to a virtual data wall. I also provide our students with certificates of completion when they pass a course that is required for graduation. When they finish all of their graduation requirements, their name is added to the “I’m Ready” section. Coming up with creative ways to recognize student success along the way can help to keep them motivated and generate excitement while spurring friendly competition. This is particularly important right now as most students are all working remotely and will be looking for opportunities to connect with both their teachers and their peers. 
  4. Expect more from your students — they will rise to the challenge. The higher the expectations, the more students will work to meet those challenges. Countless students have said that knowing their teachers set a high bar for them opened them up to a whole new world of opportunities. 

We are committed to this initiative. It’s how we ensure students are ready for the next chapter of their lives. And it’s even more urgent now as we navigate these uncertain times. Our teaching and learning practices must continue to evolve. We will always do whatever it takes to meet the learning needs of our students and we will get through this together.  

Rebecca McClellan has led the credit recovery program at Window Rock Unified School District for 11 years where the district uses Apex Learning digital curriculum to support student success.   


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