Blended learning addresses budget constraints, personalization requirements

KIPP Empower Academy wasn’t initially designed as a blended learning school. When we planned the school in 2009, our goal was to have an inaugural kindergarten grade divided into five classes of 20 students each. Each class would feature personalized, small-group instruction as the core of the instructional model. However, in August 2009, the state of California reduced funding for new and growing charter schools. Before we even opened, we projected a $200,000 shortfall in expected revenue for our first year of operations. Even more problematic, our planned class size was no longer possible.

After considerable research, we decided that blended learning would allow us to expand class size to 28-30 students and still maintain what we viewed as a non-negotiable: our emphasis on individualized and small-group instruction.

We opened the school with 115 kindergarten students in summer 2010. Despite the change to our initial vision, we were determined to establish a vibrant culture that, starting on day one of kindergarten, would reflect KIPP’s college-prep mission. From our perspective, it wasn’t a matter of determining whether we could integrate blended learning and still maintain a strong culture. It was a matter of determining how.

How it works: The classroom model

All of our students are from the South Los Angeles neighborhood where we operate, and they each enter kindergarten with highly variable abilities, backgrounds and learning styles. At the start of each school year, we conduct incoming skills assessments to place these new students into classes that include children with every level of ability. Once classes are in place, teachers assign students to one of a number of groups of 10-14 for each of the four core subject areas: reading, writing, math and science. Groups are smallest for students with the greatest needs, allowing the teacher plenty of opportunities to work directly with each student. Each classroom is led by a lead teacher; rotating intervention teachers and instructional assistants provide additional support during the core content sessions.

During the school day, each student alternates between working in a small group with a teacher and working with adaptive software on a computer. This blended learning model has helped us accomplish our goal of providing targeted instruction to each student while also ensuring that students never feel inferior for needing extra help. Using data generated by student interaction with educational software programs, teachers gain insight into each student’s precise strengths and weaknesses. “If a particular child is having trouble with recognizing letter sounds, I can find that in the data, even if I haven’t picked up on it in class,” says kindergarten teacher Justin Myles, who uses his insights to provide create differentiated lesson plans and personalize instruction for students.

Students in the KIPP blended learning model work on various skills. If remediation is needed, we use a “Response to Intervention” (RTI) method, in which a special education coordinator joins the classroom to work with small groups of students, or pulls small groups out for additional instruction. Advanced students receive work designed to ensure they remain challenged. Every six to eight weeks, teachers and staff reevaluate and reassign students based on interim assessments to ensure they are receiving instruction at their current level.

Results and next steps

The first true test of our model came in the spring of 2011, when we received the results of our year-end testing. The tests were designed to track student progress from the beginning of the year. Though 64 percent of our kindergarten class entered the school with basic or below basic proficiency, 96 percent were proficient or advanced at the end of the year. Moreover, 96 percent of students scored above the national average both in reading and math. We are currently aggregating the academic results of our second year of operation, and are eager to see how our students have progressed.

We didn’t open under ideal circumstances, but we’ve used blended learning to create a truly quality learning experience for kids who previously lacked good educational options. This fall, we’re adding a second grade to our school, and we’ll continue growing grade by grade until we reach full capacity in 2014 with 550 students in kindergarten through fourth grade.

As the first KIPP school to implement a blended learning model, we’ve had to live up to one of our KIPP credos, which is to “find a way or make one.” We’ve been successful, and our innovative model has inspired others within the KIPP network. Next year, KIPP schools that incorporate blended learning will open in Chicago and New York City. We’re looking forward to sharing what we’ve learned, and to gleaning insights from their experiences in return.

Mike Kerr came to KIPP Empower Academy as a founding principal in 2010. Prior to coming to KIPP, Mike served for five years as the founding principal of Achievement First Crown Heights Elementary Charter School in Brooklyn, NY.

Read more case-study related blogs on blended learning here.