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USC Rossier alum offers a personal approach to learning

David Haglund founded Riverside Virtual School, which offers online courses in several subjects. (Photo/Courtesy of USC Rossier)

David Haglund EdD ’09 had always been one to question the system. It’s that intellectual curiosity that drove his love of education and his passion for nontraditional learning spaces. It is also why Haglund, founder and principal of Riverside Virtual School, is an advocate for changing the way schools operate.

“Fifty years ago, schools were where the expertise lived, but a traditional classroom is limited to the knowledge in the teacher’s head and the information in the textbook,” Haglund said. “We live in a world where everyone has access to everything, and schools need to figure that out and change with the world.”

After 20 years of teaching, Haglund started Riverside Virtual School in 2006 as a way to address underenrolled courses during a time of tight budgets and increased access to Advanced Placement (AP) classes in the Riverside Unified School District.

Haglund’s school allowed students across the district to take these courses together online while participating in lab activities on their respective campuses. In 2007, Haglund added the title of director of educational options, and he worked to integrate virtual programs into traditional school settings across the district.

Today, more than 4,500 students take virtual courses in just about every subject taught at the school, which has grown to offer grades 1 through 12 and has become \ one of the most respected online learning programs in California.

“We’ve flipped the concept of school. The school is designed to provide flexible learning opportunities so students can be on campus as many days as they need,” said Haglund, who noted that the campus has 40 learning labs and allows students to check out computers if they do not have devices at home. “The actual instruction is via the Internet, and if they get stuck, they can Skype with a teacher or come to a lab for personal instruction. Kids come to school because they need to engage in a purposeful learning activity that they can’t do at home.”

The Riverside native emphasized that blended learning models are much more than the technological tools used to facilitate them.

“This is not about technology; it’s about learning and student engagement. Our concept is BYOS – build your own school,” he said. “And if school is about the adults or the master schedule, then students and learning may get lost. Schools must focus more on the outcomes and less on the inputs, and getting students personally engaged in their own learning.”

The personalized approach to learning is one he wishes he had experienced before dropping out of high school as a youth.

“I was completely disengaged in high school, and it bored the tears out of me,” he said. “I would go but wouldn’t stay for the classes I wasn’t interested in.”

Haglund said he developed an interest in teaching after working as a youth pastor, and when he enrolled in college, he found the intellectual freedom and curiosity he had yearned for in earlier years.

“I liked college because you were allowed to ask thoughtful questions and challenge the thinking of adults, and you could go as deep into a subject as you wanted to,” Haglund said. “It was more personalized, and I had made a personal link to the value of education.”

He encouraged this individualized approach to learning while teaching at a continuation school in Rialto, Calif. Students would have to demonstrate that they had learned the content of a particular lesson, and submissions varied from research papers to board games.

In 2004, he received the Teacher of the Year Award at Central Middle School and Teacher of the Year for the district. A commitment to personalized learning pathways has since been a key aspect of Haglund’s work.

“The connection that a teacher makes individually to students is a critical piece of what we do as educators,” said Haglund, the father of two children. “Kids enter the world curious, and we kind of beat that out of them with standardization so they only become curious about what they need to do to pass your class. Curiosity very frequently gets disconnected from the learning process.”

One example of how Riverside Virtual School circumvented the system to accommodate a student’s curiosity happened in 2009-10. Sixth-grader Nick wanted to take algebra at Haglund’s school in the fall, but the subject was not typically taught until middle school. The district approved his request, pending certain assessments, and Haglund remembered getting a call in the fall from the boy, who said, “I’m done with algebra. What do I do next?”

“How many days does it take to learn algebra in California? The same number of days it takes to learn biology or U.S. history … the 180 days in a school year,” he said. “But we know that’s not the case, and it can take 90 days for one kid and 205 days for another kid. Yet we keep all the kids in the classroom because of these arbitrary rules that have nothing to do with learning outcomes.”

Haglund said another goal of his school, and his reason for launching the California Open Campus Initiative, which now includes 34 districts that share resources, is to make quality education accessible to all students.

He cited a 2007 Educational Opportunity Report by the University of California, Los Angeles, that found an estimated 960,000 students in the state go to schools that do not offer sufficient sections of courses required for admission to the University of California and California State University systems. Nineteen percent were in Southern California, and 27 percent were in areas with minorities.

“That is a problem, and it’s a civil rights issue,” Haglund said.

He recalled the superintendent of Baker Valley, Calif., calling him, distressed that she could not recruit a Spanish teacher for her remote community of just 300 students. She knew that foreign language was a college entry requirement, and in telling parents the school could not offer Spanish, she would essentially be telling them their children would not be able to go to college, he said. Riverside Virtual School now provides the foreign language and AP courses for Baker Valley.

Haglund was interested in studying one of his virtual programs as a dissertation when he discovered the balance of theoretical and practical study and the collaborative learning environment of USC Rossier’s doctoral program. But he quickly deserted his initial topic after attending a thematic dissertation workshop led by USC Professors David Marsh and Rudy Castruita.

“It was the study of urban superintendents that evoke change in the system, and I thought, ‘Wow, that sounds fun’ because I have always liked disrupting the system,” Haglund said. “I thought that it was a chance to change the way schools look.”

Haglund said the collaborative nature of the EdD program’s thematic dissertation gave him skills for developing the successful partnerships he has forged in his current position.

“USC was transformative for me personally and professionally,” he said. “I was comfortable being a lone ranger and I realized that is not sufficient. You have to engage the hearts of the people at the center of the organization if you want to create change.”

The Trojan Family has also proved indispensable, as fellow students and faculty form meaningful relationships and become critical resources for one another long after graduation, Haglund said.

“The network and support during and after the program is a value in itself,” he said. “You can get a degree anywhere, but you join a family at USC.”

He continues to be impressed by the impact the EdD program has on the field of education.

“If you look at education leaders who have made significant changes across the state, you’ll see there are a lot of Trojans. They are doing fantastic things in the system.”

Haglund’s own goals include integrating blended learning into all traditional schools within Riverside Unified so that his school disappears seamlessly into brick-and-mortar classrooms, with digital versions of the standard curriculum given to students who can move in and out of without missing a beat.

He said he is thrilled with the work USC Hybrid High School is doing to create this new vision of school, and he hopes that more schools will begin bucking the system in favor of this student-centered approach.

“This is about teaching, relevant learning experiences and treating them like individual thinkers who are not forced to sit in a room for hours if they don’t need to be there,” he said. “And when you give it to them, they take advantage of it.”

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