Online, interactive learning system called a “game changer” in preventing dropouts

Educators say it's a "game changer."

It's in more than 2,600 schools across the country, used by about a million students and adding more all the time, even home schoolers.

It's called Acellus, and it was developed here in Kansas City by a noted technology inventor.

Acellus is an online, interactive learning system. Several flavors of it are in use from kindergarten through high school, but most often it's being used to turn potential drop-outs into high school graduates.

Students who have fallen behind on their course work or dropped a grade level use Acellus to catch up. In education-speak, that's called a "credit-recovery" program.

Acellus was conceived and founded by Kansas City scientist/engineer Roger Billings. He is most noted for being a pioneer in the use of hydrogen as fuel, particularly in vehicles.

Acellus is his latest venture — started in an office park in Independence. The system was first installed in a St. Joseph, Mo., school in 2001, and it has been has been growing rapidly. In January the operation moved just south of Kansas City International Airport into a office building renamed Billings Tower.

“Acellus does not allow you to fail,” said Jill Maxon, a special education teacher in the Grain Valley school district.

Grain Valley has been using the system for two years and getting what educators there say are amazing results helping get failing high school students back on track toward graduation.

Kansas City Public School District is one of the latest to bring Acellus into its classrooms.

How it works

Acellus, with its 137 employees, uses a technology Billings dubbed "prism diagnostics."

Employees first travel the country finding top teachers in every subject, has them come to studios at its Kansas City headquarters and then video records them as they teach lessons.

In the classroom or computer lab, students call up the online lessons under the supervision of a flesh and blood teacher. Each student, however, works through the lesson at his or her own pace. Students can also call up a lesson remotely - from home, a library, or anywhere - without a teacher present.

After each lesson the student takes a quiz. The "prism diagnostic" technology captures the student's responses and analyzes them.

Billings explains the science this way; "In the same way that a prism splits light into a spectrum of colors, prism diagnostics splits students into groups, or spectrums, based on similar deficiencies or holes in their background knowledge."

Then, he said, "When a student falls into one of these spectrums, customized personal instruction is instantly delivered for that precise defect.”

In other words, based on the answers the student gives, Acellus determines whether the student processed the lesson well and understands it or whether they missed some concept along the way and aren't ready to move forward to next lesson.

The key is that Acellus will send the student back into the lesson and probably even present it in a different way. It can also slow down the lesson.

All the while the teachers supervising the lesson can see on their screens what lesson each student is doing, how far along they are, how many times they were sent back and what concepts they are stuck on.

The teachers can then decide to provide person-to-person help. Even students working remotely can turn to a real teacher later if they need one.

A student catches up

When 16-year-old Bailey Brown at Grain Valley High School learned she was pregnant, school got tougher. She didn’t want to be there and she didn’t want to study.

Bailey struggled and failed and academically fell far behind her classmates. She was no longer on track to graduate with them.

Now, after two years attending Grain Valley’s Sni Valley Academy alternative school where she takes classes through Acellus, Bailey, a junior, has not only caught up but is excelling in every course, even geometry, her hardest class.

“Actually, I’m ahead and since I’ve been here I feel like I can graduate,” said Bailey, whose goal is to attend the University of Central Missouri and study anthropology.

“I was nervous when I first started it but it fits me and I feel like I’m getting good,” Bailey said. “I love how you get to work at your own pace.”

That in part is what attracted leaders of the eastern Jackson County school district to the system and why they believe it has helped boost the district's graduation rate.

Over the last few years Grain Valley's graduation rate has ranged from 96 percent to 99 percent, among the highest in the Kansas City area.

“The only reason a student doesn’t graduate from Grain Valley High School would be because he or she decided they just didn’t want to, but it won’t be because they couldn’t pass the course work,” said Jeremy Plowman, the high school principal.

Teachers said they're most impressed that, unlike other credit recovery programs they've tried, Acellus is not reading based, but rather has a teacher on screen explaining concepts.

"If students were not good readers or not good at reading comprehension they do not grasp the lessons," and that, Plowman said, defeats the purpose of credit recovery.

“Our philosophy in the district is that all kids can learn. But all kids learn at different rates and different ways and we have to access all of that,'' Plowman said. “Acellus provides us with a tool to do that rather than saying one size fits all.”

He said that before Acellus, “We had kids who were just spinning their wheels, because they hadn’t fully understood some portion of the lesson. They were just stuck.”

That’s a dangerous place for a student to be, Plowman said. "They stop coming. They fail, and now they’re at risk of dropping out."

Acellus an equalizer

About 15 years ago, the federal government began pressing school districts to improve graduation rates, and schools from Los Angeles to St. Louis to Chicago and New York began clamoring for ways to bump them up. The number of credit recovery options boomed.

Acellus is a product of the International Academy of Science, a non-profit organization offering a post-graduate fellowship program that Billings also founded. It offers master’s and doctorate degrees in research by combining science, engineering, and business into one course of study.

Many credit recovery programs have been praised for getting students to graduate, but have been highly criticized for failing to adequately prepare students for colleges or careers.

Acellus claims it does both and has seen noted growth in the last few years.

The Star spoke with officials at districts using Acellus, interviewed teachers in Acellus training, and competing companies that also provide schools with online credit recovery curriculum. None offered anything negative about the Kansas City company.

State and national education officials said they don't monitor such companies so they could not comment one way or the other on Acellus or how rapidly it's growing compared.

Internal Revenue Service documents for the International Academy of Science shows that in 2015 net assets in one year grew from just under $4.5 million to a little over $7 million. By 2016 those assets had jumped up to nearly $10.5 million.

The provisionally accredited Kansas City Public Schools, which for several years has been working to increase student performance and regain full accreditation, is among the latest to partner with Acellus.

"It is a game changer," said Rashawn Caruthers, director of career and technology education for the district.

"Education is an issue of equity and access," Caruthers said, adding that KCPS has been trying to knock down those barriers by making sure every student has access to a computer and the internet at home. "Now Acellus allows us the rich content we need to move students forward. "

An extra bonus is that KCPS students can use Acellus lessons anywhere, even from home. "That takes their learning beyond the boundaries of the school walls," Caruthers said. "We are excited because it is engaging kids in different ways and all kids learn differently. It gives kids a chance to modify their own learning."

KCPS, through an Acellus grant, gets the use of the online product free for a year. It's one way Acellus gets districts on board: It first gives them a taste of what it offers. Otherwise a district pays $25 for each student that's licensed to use Acellus — for 500 students that's $12,500.

"I think the reason schools are switching is because it really works, and just as important, it is so very affordable," said Billings, claiming Acellus is about a fourth the cost of similar online credit recovery and education tools.

District officials like the way it's working so far and expect to expand its use throughout the district.

Caruthers said KCPS is also using Acellus to introduce third grade students to coding using a computerized robot that Billings' company developed.

Eventually, the district will also use the Acellus career technology education lessons and its credit recovery functions.

The Kansas City district also likes that Acellus is local and sees the partnership as an "opportunity to get involved with something that is operating on a national level but located in your own backyard," Caruthers said.

In St. Louis, too

St. Louis Public Schools was one of the early districts to choose Acellus for dropout prevention. District educators said more students who were at risk of dropping out are now making it to graduation.

“It should have been in our district three or four years ago,” said Charlie Bean, a teacher working in dropout prevention for St. Louis Public Schools.

While the program is most-widely used for credit recovery, there are other branches of Acellus, including Acellus Academy, an accredited online school through which students can earn a high school diploma; Acellus tutoring; and Acellus for Home School. Schools can also use Acellus for special education, Advance Placement, English as a second language and GED courses.

In Illinois this school year, 148 students at some schools in the Dolton West Elementary District are using Acellus STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in the Robotic Labs. According to local news reports the school system is so happy with the success of the program it plans to implement Acellus STEM district wide.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 90 percent of middle and high schools offer some kind of credit recovery program.

The programs do not come entirely without controversy. Educators in districts across the country have argued that such programs lack rigor.

Several districts, including in the nation’s capital, have been accused of misusing their credit recovery programs to sweep ill-prepared students through to graduation. Earlier this year the Washington D.C. schools switched to began a partnership for credit recovery with Acellus.

Last fall a fuss surfaced in Bakersfield, Calif., when a public school district created a virtual school that it marketed to parochial schools.

The public school was paying the faith-based school for its students to participate in the online public school. The public school district then claimed that because the students were enrolled in the public school’s virtual school, and it could collect per-pupil state dollars for those students.

At the center of that controversy was Acellus Academy, which the public school used as its virtual school program.

That's possible because the Acellus Academy covers all core areas of K-12 education, including electives, languages, and advanced placement courses. And it recently added career technology education,

In the end some of those private school leaders dropped out of the online program and claimed the Acellus lessons didn’t match the rigor of a parochial school curriculum.

Acellus is now working to further grow its parochial school partnerships.