Arthur Ashe Charter School opened in 2007. The school is one of five FirstLine Schools’ open enrollment public charter schools in New Orleans. In 2010, after several years of operation using a traditional instructional model, Ashe began planning to move to blended learning. The school had multiple reasons for making the switch, chief among them improving achievement for scholars, including a high percentage of special education learners.
Ashe became the first FirstLine school to launch a blended learning pilot for all grades, K-8, during the 2011-2012 school year. (We also piloted the program in the 9th grade of our high school.) Making the move to blended learning as an established school had its challenges. Key to our success was a very deliberate change management process, the first step of which was to define the problem we were trying to fix: Ashe scholars were making great gains to close the achievement gap, but to best serve students, we needed to ensure the gains were even greater.
Making the switch
We next asked two questions: Why weren’t we making larger gains each year, and how could we help teachers accelerate students’ progress? The answer to the first question was fairly straightforward: The traditional instructional model didn’t allow us to personalize education to each scholar’s precise needs. Once we had that insight, we quickly lighted on blended learning as a potential solution.
We knew that in order to make a successful transition to a new instructional model, we’d need to do two things: 1) Pilot the program, and 2) ensure that staff, scholars and our community were on board with the approach. To manage through the change, we first brought Ashe teachers to the table to help design our blended learning model and to test educational software options. Our goal was ensuring that decisions were made at the staff level, rather than as a top-down mandate.
Once we’d achieved teacher buy-in, our job became less theoretical and more pragmatic: We were no longer focused on winning hearts and minds, but on changing techniques and designing an effective implementation. This process began in the spring semester and involved some scholars. We included students in the change management process to help build excitement in our community.
By the fall of 2011, we were ready to launch the pilot.
Piloting the program
The fundamentals of the blended learning model we implemented are simple: Scholars spend substantial time in traditional teacher-led classes; twice a day, they go to a computer lab (our Learning Lab) where each student uses adaptive online software that allows individuals to work at their own pace. Of the 20-60 scholars in the computer lab at one time, very few work on the same content. Many use the same program, but at their own pace. Some have raced ahead in the curriculum while others are moving more slowly. All interact with adaptive content customized to their specific skill sets.
Data generated by the programs used in the lab create a detailed picture of individual scholar’s abilities, arming teachers with a nuanced set of information about each scholar’s unique needs and strengths. This intricate picture allows teachers to get to know individual scholar’s strengths and weaknesses better than they might in a typical classroom setting. The net result is that a single teacher can personalize instruction for a full class of 30 scholars.
We also provide remediation in the Learning Lab, where small-groups of scholars work with a dedicated instructor to review math problems or English Language activities. These students are pulled into Learning Support groups when software-generated reports show scholars struggling with specific content. The instructor is then able to respond directly and provide the type of targeted intervention that would be, frankly, almost impossible without blended learning.
Seeing the results: A narrower achievement gap; a better SPED experience
In practice, the instructional changes we implemented have allowed for a more personal educational experience for every scholar as well as schoolwide gains in achievement. This last school year:
- Ashe scholars made significant gains on standardized tests, with an 11 percent increase in the number of scholars scoring at or above “basic” across all subjects (from 53 percent to 64 percent) and moving up a grade.
- In math, Ashe 8th grade scholars ranked the third highest in the city. The only two schools ahead of Ashe were selective schools.
- Ashe outperformed all of the middle schools in St. Tammany and St. Charles parishes, suburbs of New Orleans with significantly more affluent student bodies. (Ninety-five percent of Ashe scholars qualify for free or reduced lunch.)
While blended learning has benefitted every Ashe scholar, it’s been particularly critical to our ability to effectively serve our significant special education (SPED) population. Across our network of five schools, 14 percent of scholars qualify for SPED services. At 26 percent, Ashe has the highest SPED population in New Orleans. Blended learning creates a more inclusive environment for these scholars. During lab time, SPED scholars are on computers like every other scholar. Periodically, SPED scholars will be pulled into a separate room to work in a small group with a special education teacher. In past years, instructors would have pulled those scholars out of their core math class, robbing them of class time with their peers. Now they are neither spotlighted nor left out, but are instead a real part of their class, able to work at their own speed.
Many factors have contributed to Ashe’s gains, but we view the ability to personalize learning by leveraging blended learning as a true game changer. As we incorporate blended learning into other FirstLine Schools, we look forward to seeing still more scholars make significant learning gains.
Chris Liang-Vergara is director of instructional technology for personalized learning at FirstLine Schools. Chris joined FirstLine from the Noble Network of Charter Schools in Chicago, the highest performing network of open enrollment charter schools in Chicago.