SLP Online student, David, posing in front of the sea lamprey sign

Sixth grader David Huston recently learned about sea lampreys in the Great Lakes. His learning took him all the way to the Duluth Aquarium. The project was part of his learning plan developed and supported by his at-home learning coach, mom, Tina Huston, and teacher Sue Berge through SLP Schools Online Elementary.

This year of learning with SLP Schools Online Elementary has included a lot of personalized, engaging and fun projects. David, Tina and Sue meet once a week to create David’s learning plan, talk about goals and reflect on learning. They are a team that’s found its groove.

Spring Lake Park Schools fully online learning model for grades K-6 is just wrapping up its first full year. Core to the experience is a 3-way partnership between at-home learning coaches (usually a parent or guardian), students and learning advocates (a certified Spring Lake Park Schools teacher). Learning experiences are customized and include a blend of live and on-demand online learning experiences as well as large and small group interactions.

The partnership

Tracy Lizee, SLP Online Elementary teacher, describes the learning model as a blend of home school and virtual school.

“The home school part is where the learning coach provides some of the learning but it's not something that they have to come up with on their own. We do all that work,” she says. “We're licensed educators that design curriculum to fit the student in a way that's appropriate for their age level, their ability level, their gaps, their strengths, their interests and needs.”

Tina has experienced all models of schooling. Her six children have been in traditional school settings and home schooled at different points in their education. 

“I wanted to do online rather than doing home school for David because for home school, I'm creating the curriculum. I'm buying the curriculum. I'm putting the course together and the scope and sequence,” says Tina. “I don't have to do that here. The teacher is doing that and I'm just working with David to kind of get through everything.”

Sue Berge, SLP Schools Online Elementary teacher who works most closely with David and Tina, calls the relationship a tripod.

“I tell parents, I need to be here, you need to be here, and the child needs to be here,” says Sue. “Together, we're going to help grow this child. It is not just me or just you or just the child but rather the three of us focused on the child’s growth.”

When asked what school is like in this model, David responds, “Well, it's very nice.”

“We both have enjoyed it,” says Tina, with a smile in her voice. “It really works well for our personalities. David has autism and ADHD so it's very hard for him to sit in the classroom. He has to get up and run and have space. For us this model works just for that reason but also David is an independent worker to begin with which is really important in this model.”

What’s in a week

Students in this learning model are learning the same things other students are learning in more traditional settings. Licensed teachers provide the lesson plans and the materials aligned to competencies and state standards.

An SLP Online student dissecting owl pellets

During Friday field experience days, students were able to do live lessons together in person. During one live science session, students dissected owl pellets. On another day, they did an egg drop challenge. Students and at-home learning coaches appreciate the in-person components.

“We meet as coach, teacher and learner once a week, at the beginning of the week,” says Tina.David talks with Ms. Berge about setting goals and she meets online with him if he has questions about work or needs help.”

The plan for the week is different for each student. There is daily interaction between the student and learning advocate. Sometimes it's through a live lesson or multiple lessons, meeting with the family or giving feedback on an assignment or a student’s daily reflection.

“With the older students, I have three hours a week of live group sessions - book club, math club, and then we do grade-level activities,” says Sue.

Tracy works with the younger kids. Because they are working on phonics and other foundational skills they meet live more often.

“Our younger students do need a bit more scaffolding and support. They are emergent readers so unable to do as many independent activities,” says Tracy. “Depending on what students need, they may meet with one of us for reading or math intervention so it really is personalized.”

Teachers and families emphasize that kids are not just on their iPads all day but rather have an opportunity to learn within their neighborhood and community.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, I think our vision was to mimic and replicate what was happening in the classroom for the same amount of time and follow the same schedule,” says Tracy. “We're not on our iPads that much anymore. We go outside and learn anywhere. It’s not just sitting on WebEx for hours.”

Online students also get together for field experience days to collaborate, learn together in-person and have a chance to connect. The end-of-year field experience day found students in grades 3-6 making catapults as they study force and motion and students in grades K-2 making kaleidoscopes as they study light. While students connect and work together, at-home coaches have a chance to make connections with other parents.

Keys to success

This model of learning isn’t for every family. Sue and Tracy use words like “self-starters” and “independent learners” to describe successful learners and at-home coaches. Those experiencing a high level of success have also worked hard to figure out the systems and structures that need to be in place to support the learning as well as allow the at-home learning coach to actively support the student.

“I think as a parent you think you will be overwhelmed, but you're not if you put the routine in place,” says Tina. “We’ve got it to where David knows what he needs to be doing at 10 a.m. He knows what he needs to be doing at 11 a.m. He knows we have lunch at noon.”

David gets up at 7 a.m. each day and follows a structure and plan for the day. The routine keeps learning on track and would also make transitioning back to a normal classroom easier, as Tina’s older children have done. David works independently but Tina checks in with him often throughout the day.

“If you are a parent that works from home and you try to do this or you are a parent that works full time and tries to do this, the routine is everything,” says Tina. “I'll check in with David. It's 10 o'clock what are you working on? It's 11 o'clock what are you working on?”

Sue emphasizes creating a schedule that reflects a deep knowledge of the learner to ensure that the child is set up for success.

“I ask families – ‘When is your child the most energetic . . . Are they a morning child or an afternoon child?’” says Sue. “We talk a lot about doing the subject they like least first because otherwise they just keep putting it off.”

Tina and David have followed that advice and structured the day so David does less desirable subjects earlier and favorites at the end of the day.

“We do social studies and science at the end of our day because David likes to do these,” says Tina. “We can go down a rabbit hole that might take a little longer. It may say we have to do 45 minutes of science, so we end up doing two hours of science depending on what he wants to do with it.”


There is a lot of opportunity and flexibility to tap into each learner’s interests. David was asked to research a problem and what would help it. He was interested in exploring parasitic sea lampreys in the Great Lakes. During his trip to the Duluth Aquarium, he saw the lampreys. He also communicated with a specialist at the Aquarium via email and learned about the different attempts to reduce the number of sea lamprey in the Great Lakes.

Three SLP Online students smiling on a bench

One of David’s online classmates, Eliana, took her learning "on the road" while visiting family in Chicago. She went to the science museum there to see an exhibit related to the classes’ learning about Native American culture and land.  

In another experiment, David and Tina made a cloud that actually rained. They are closing out the year with marble madness and learning about force and motion. Marble madness was a strategy Sue and Tina came up with together to keep David engaged in learning during the final days of the school year.

“Parents who are involved in just ensuring that their students have the support versus parents who are sitting there with the child doing the work with them allow the child the autonomy to make discoveries and let them struggle a little bit,” says Sue. “I think that is an important quality.” 

The personalization of pace is also important for these learners. David has touched 5th grade, 6th grade and 7th grade math concepts, including pre-algebra. He likes the freedom and challenge of being able to work ahead if he's getting bored.

“I think this model gives the learner really good decision-making,” says Tina. “They are challenging themselves. There's that flexibility. There's critical thinking. There's that decision-making that goes with a whole student approach.”

The progress students have made this year in a model that was still new and, in many ways, untried, is what makes Sue and Tracy most proud.

“I'm really proud of our students,” says Tracy. “They are much more confident in their learning this spring than they were when we started the program. Our students are able to describe how they learn best, and I feel like they know themselves really well and not just academically.”

SLP Schools Online Elementary is open to any K-6 student who lives in Minnesota at no additional cost. Each student uses a district-issued technology device (iPad), and has access to support services, including social workers, school psychologists.