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Washington Education Innovation Forum presents Blended Learning at St. Therese Catholic Academy
On April 11th, the Washington Education Innovation Forum presented Jeffrey Kerscher, Director of the Phaedrus Initiative at Seton Education Partners (Seton). Seton is a nonprofit education consultancy formed in response to the declining enrollment and rising costs of Catholic schools. They aim to revive opportunities for disadvantaged children to attend high-quality urban Catholic schools that build knowledge, character, and faith.
Seton’s Phaedrus Initiative was launched to improve and increase student learning through individualized, differentiated, and data-driven instruction. Phaedrus works with school leaders to assess their facility and enrollment to determine which blended technology model and tools would work best educationally and economically.
In order to close the achievement gap, Kerscher advises, “we need to figure out a system where average [teachers] can get above average results.” Phaedrus works to give teachers the tools to work more efficiently, target instruction, and allow students to progress at their own pace.
In 2009, the Phaedrus Initiative spearheaded a blended learning model in a school in San Francisco’s Mission District. Using an in-classroom rotation model to maximize small group instruction and to increase enrollment to around 30 students per classroom/grade, the school both reduced operating costs and increased academic performance.
Now Seattle’s St. Therese Catholic Academy has transitioned to that same model, becoming the first blended learning academy in the Northwest. St. Therese offers families—regardless of income—an individualized preschool through eighth-grade education designed to strengthen creativity, knowledge, and character. As site manager of the Phaedrus Initiative at St. Therese, Kerscher discussed the school’s first-year implementation of the model, and shared lessons learned:
Blended learning is not a silver bullet.
Kerscher explains, “If you think that you can put blended learning into your school and it will solve your management, culture, teacher issues, you’re wrong.” Although it can be a useful and effective tool, he notes that blended learning must be used by good teachers within a strong school culture.
Students can and do drive their own learning; but incentives, competition, and other motivation systems are key to getting the best results.
At St. Therese, students can earn rewards for their perfect attendance, honors status, or academic achievements, such as different colored SWAG bands representing different achievements with specific privileges. Students also compete to be Academic Champions through an efforts-based reading program designed to provide access to over four million articles at their individual reading level. “We’ve set up a system where you’re rewarded for doing the right thing,” Kerscher explains, “and it becomes something desirable that you want to do.”
Use of data must drive everything.
This enables teachers to be more efficient and target to needs. Seton emphasizes a relentless focus on data paired with a “no excuses” charter school culture. The Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) is utilized as a baseline assessment in reading and math, and teachers are provided access to data reports on each student’s progress on specific standards in order to target instruction.
Different administration processes, lesson structures, and software programs work better for different ages and ability levels.
Software used by Seton’s partner schools includes Education Elements, Compass Learning, Ten Marks, Achieve 3000, DreamBox, and many more. Utilizing these programs, kindergarten through third grade classes include two 25-30 minute rotations in which half the class works on computers while the other half engages in small-group instruction with their teacher. For fourth through eight grade classes, educators are given the freedom to construct different models, such as full-day computer work with small group sessions or half-day rotations. The main question posed by teachers about the new model was “how will this change how I do what I do?” Kerscher notes that in some cases the actual instruction practices don’t change very much, just how teachers look at data from students. More of a difference occurs if a heavy technology solution is implemented.
It’s about more than technology.
Blended learning can increase student/teacher interaction, enable targeted small group instruction, and allow schools to explicitly talk about character traits associated with improvements. “As I was reading How Children Succeed by Paul Tough,” Kerscher remembers, “I was thinking that we’re kind of missing an opportunity here to explicitly talk about things like grit, perseverance, hard work, focus, and effort. All of the things that kids need to succeed later on in life.”
Enrollment is the key to creating economic benefits from blended learning, especially with the classroom rotation model.
In a lab model, school staffing needs decrease, whereas in a classroom rotation model, enrollment must increase to cover the cost of running an involved program. The 30-1 student to teacher ratio enables the reduction of per-pupil costs, making the program sustainable moving forward. Through this model, St. Therese has increased enrollment from 141 to 166 with a 15% reduction in per pupil operating costs.
Although St. Therese is only mid-way through its first year under this new model, Kerscher believes the difference is notable for teachers and students, and it shows in the MAP assessment results. Teachers say that they would not go back to the old model, they appreciate the efficiency and the awareness of their students’ needs, and they are comfortable with 30 students in a class given the tools at their disposal. On the same token, students feel that they are improving, and they feel closer to their teachers because their individual needs are being targeted.
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The Washington Education Innovation Forum is hosted by the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.