Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Shenandoah invites community input on virtual learning

JEREMIAH STEWART, 18, presents his Power Point final exhibition to friends, family and classmates at Shenandoah High School. He built a computer from the bottom up. Democrat photo by Shelly Thorene

SHENANDOAH HIGH - Jeremiah Stewart, 18, of Folsom presents his Power Point final exhibition to friends, family and classmates present at Shenandoah High School, in El Dorado on Friday. Democrat photo by Shelly Thorene

After becoming El Dorado County’s first public charter high school in 2002, Shenandoah High School, located at 6540 Koki Lane in Diamond Springs, has produced nine years of successful young leaders through its rigorous and innovative curriculum.
Looking to progress even further towards a learning system that reaches all students with a range of different learning styles, needs, and goals, Shenandoah invites the community to take part in discussions about the school’s newest direction toward virtual learning.

Learning options

“As a dependent charter we work with the district to provide another option for students,” principal of Shenandoah and Director of Alternative Education for El Dorado Union High School District, Debby Hanson, 59, said.
“We are actively trying to give a virtual high school for students, something that does not currently exist in the county,” Hanson said.

Hanson is eager to open a dialogue with the community to see how virtual learning can best be incorporated into the school and community, especially since Shenandoah students are such an active part of the community through volunteering and internships. Interested community members can contact Hanson at

The new approach would utilize virtual reading times and online tools like Skype, a video calling device, and Elluminate, an e-learning device, eventually transitioning toward a mostly virtual campus. However, Shenandoah would not eliminate its strengths of community service, internships, and supportive mentorship with students.

Full tool box

“We want to take all the tools that are possible and bring them together to create a rich experience for students,” Hanson said.
Shenandoah was developed with the method of Big Picture Learning, established in 1995 by educators Dennis Littky and Elliott Washor. It works, first, “… by generating and sustaining personalized schools that work in tandem with the real world of the greater community,” according to Shenandoah’s link on the El Dorado Union High School District’s Website,
Secondly, it continues that, “… in order to sustain successful schools where authentic and relevant learning takes place, we must continually innovate techniques and test learning tools to make our schools better and more rigorous.”
Lastly, Big Picture Learning learns from its lessons and research in order to continue to be an influence on future schools and public policy.

Personalized lessons

The development of virtual learning at Shenandoah would continue the values of Big Picture Learning by continuing to provide students with a personalized options on how they want to learn, it pushes the already challenging high school to continue to bring innovative ideas to learning, and allows for educators to learn from the approach, and research and implement ways of improving it as it evolves.

“We’ve been experimenting (with virtual learning) and I was surprised. It works pretty well,” said Hanson.

Shenandoah currently uses online programs, including Apex, a digital curriculum that students have the option to use in place of conventional teacher-student classroom interaction.

Online programs are currently “blended” with traditional teacher-student class periods, independent studies, internships within the community, intense mentorship from teachers who are called, “advisors,” and genuine, meaningful friendship, support and constructive feedback from fellow students.

Shenandoah creates an environment where students still must meet the rigorous A-G requirements of all public high schools, but also can earn credits at community college, must put in at least 300 hours of community service, write a 75-page autobiography, and have had at least two internships by the time they are ready to graduate.

State of flux

“We never say this is the perfect system,” said Tara Grudin, 27, an advisor at Shenandoah. “It changes from year to year. Kids are always changing, so we need to change. Really look at who the kids are that are sitting in front of you. We are always trying to evolve as educators.”
Grudin has an M.A. in cross-cultural communication from National University and a B.A. in history from the University of California, San Diego. She has been teaching for five years, the last three at Shenandoah.
Grudin said that advisors “manipulate” the curriculum for each individual student. “You never look at a kid who is doing the exact same thing as other kids.”


For example, Sam Stoddard, 17, will be entering California State University, Sacramento this fall. Sam will be taking part in Sacramento State’s demanding honors program and is pursuing a B.A. degree in English. Sam applied and was accepted to nine different universities in California.
Through her experience at Shenandoah, Sam discovered that taking advantage of course offerings at Folsom Community College has placed her ahead of other entering freshman this fall because she had the opportunity to work on the state of California’s General Education requirements for universities.
“Physical science, done. Language, done,” Sam said. She should be finishing Sacramento State in three years, allowing her to save money and possibly look toward graduate school.
“Shenandoah is a great school. Independent. It prepares you for the future,” Sam said.
Sam’s mother, Pam Stoddard, 47, has sat on the Shenandoah advisory committee and is thoughtful of the culture of the school and how it has prepared Sam for the future.
“Students who care about their future and want more say in how, what and why they learn may really appreciate Shenandoah. I feel that Shenandoah is a terrific option for families who encourage autonomy, self-reliance and awareness in their children,” Stoddard wrote in an e-mail.
Sam’s senior classmate, Jeremiah Stewart, 18, will now be pursuing his B.A. in information technology from National University. Unlike Sam, who did not enjoy Shenandoah’s Apex online curriculum and chose to take most of her courses another way, Jeremiah found Apex beneficial to his learning style. Now he is taking advantage of National University’s accredited online curriculum in order to follow his passion for computers.
Jeremiah said about Shenandoah High School, “I could work at my own pace; I was able to blow through all the classes, do environmental service.”
Jeremiah’s mother, Tina Stewart, 49, said about working with the school’s design, “You need a child who is really self-disciplined. Right away you (students) get hooked up with a mentor, like you were in an internship or new company. They help you not to fail, not to get discouraged.”


For one of his “exhibitions,” where students must give a presentation of their mastering of material in front of their peers, advisors, parents and community, Jeremiah built a computer from the bottom up.
Jeremiah was in GATE as a youth, said Stewart, and could get bored in conventional classroom settings. Stewart’s other son, who is 11, will probably take advantage of a conventional public school because of his personality and discipline in sports. Shenandoah is not for every student, but it provides another flexible option of learning.
Susana Mayfield, Career and Internship Coordinator at Shenandoah, has worked at the school for five years and has two sons who graduated from Shenandoah.

Individual programs

The internship program is an invaluable piece of Shenandoah’s culture that allows students to engage in hands-on learning experiences with community businesses twice a week during the school year.
“The philosophy is ‘one student at a time,’” said Mayfield. “I’ve watched the school evolve, always for the better.”
The four conventional high schools in the El Dorado Union High School District — Oak Ridge, Ponderosa, El Dorado, and Union Mine — are all California Distinguished Schools, a great honor, and have just as much opportunity as Shenandoah has for students to grow and parents to be involved. Oak Ridge is also currently a Nationally Recognized Blue Ribbon School, which honors high-performing schools.

A positive atmosphere

The culture of Shenandoah represents the values of El Dorado County’s strong public high school system by allowing for students to take part in a critical reflection process of self and community that some students do not engage in until university and beyond. Students, through support and practice, gain public speaking skills and the confidence to present themselves and their ideas successfully.
Principal Debby Hanson said that Shenandoah’s goal is to have a solid proposal of virtual learning ready for the school board by October.

For those interested in taking part in the conversation, her contact e-mail is


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