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The big key to success with blended learning

Principal, blended learning experts, say knowing how to analyze data huge key to success

blended-data In a national climate where schools have data, but are struggling to make it actionable, officials from a public charter school that integrates a growing nationwide practice, blended learning, say knowing how to integrate data on a regular basis is the key to student achievement.

Rocketship Si Se Puede Academy in San Jose, Calif., is a public charter K-5 elementary school in its fifth year, currently serving 630 students with a staff of about 35. The student population is mainly Latino (95 percent) with many students considered English-Language Learners (ELL). Ninety percent of the students are also on free-and-reduced lunch.

Rocketship Si Se Puede not only met and surpassed the state’s Academic Performance Index (API) and achieved a top performance rank compared to other schools with similar student demographic profiles, it also achieved success in one of the newest models of learning: blended learning.

(Next page: The key to success with blended learning)

According to Principal Andre Elliott-Chandler, one of the biggest keys to success not only for a blended learning school, but any school looking to achieve 21st century success, is allowing teachers time to prepare, collaborate, and learn from data that’s collected daily to help personalize student learning.

How it began

Rocketship Si Se Puede Academy is the second school that is part of Rocketship Education, a community-focused network of public elementary charter schools serving primarily low-income students in neighborhoods where access to excellent schools is limited.

Rocketship currently operates nine schools, with 85 percent of the total student population low-income, and 70 percent ELL. Rocketship schools’ achievement levels are in the top 5 percent in California.

“We believe that there are three factors in our success,” said Charlie Bufalino, manager of Growth & Policy at Rocketship Education. “One is excellent teachers and that happens through professional development (PD), teacher access to resources, and heavy investment in planning. Another is through personalizes learning, which happens with effective technology implementation and small-group tutoring; and then there’s a great sense of community and parent engagement.”

Rocketship believes in teacher investment so much that schools in the network offer 300-plus hours of PD every year. Teachers also have year-round coaches, and between 40-50 minutes per day to plan student learning.

“Much of what our blended learning models do is provide up-to-the-minute feedback through online adaptive learning software, so our PD focuses on data analysis and management as core competencies,” said Bufalino.

Bufalino also explained that principals who have “gotten results” in the past make for great Rocketship candidates.

“Prior to Rocketship I had four years teaching as an elementary school teacher,” said Elliott-Chandler. I’ve always had a strong personal belief in learning to process data and I ask about data analyzing in interviews with potential school leaders. It’s not so much about getting the right answers, but more a ‘reverence for data.’ You have to be prepared to make the data your own and take responsibility for it.”

Both Elliott-Chandler and Bufalino say that data analysis, while critical for all schools, is a key skill to master specifically for blended learning schools.

Rocketship schools currently have two model of blended learning in place:

Rotational: All K-3 grade levels have three teachers (one in the humanities, one in math and science, and one for a learning lab).

Students in Si Se Puede Academy currently spend a half day in the humanities, a quarter day in math and science and a quarter day in the learning lab. The learning lab consists of three parts: online learning programs (OLPs), individual reading, and small group tutoring (student must qualify for response to intervention tutoring, however, so the time spent on the three parts of the learning lab varies per student). Students spend roughly 40-80 minutes per day using an online learning program. Outside of these classes there are also enrichment class, such as music and physical education. Students rotate between these classes.

“The benefits for the rotational model are that teachers have an expertise in their specific subject, it allows for lots of planning from teachers so that students can get the most out of their lessons, and online learning can help students with language remediation,” said Elliott-Chandler.

Flex: Grades 4 and 5 use a flex model in Rocketship schools. The model consists of an entire class with all of its teachers in one large room. The space is open so that students can rotate between group work, individual work, and online learning. Teachers are there to guide students through their tasks and learning.

“Flex models really save time for the school, which we need for teacher planning, but getting rid of bells and students moving around from class to class,” said Elliott-Chandler. “Technology, which is really teacher-driven in terms of implementation, and the smart use of data really make this possible and efficient.”

Fifth-grade students at Si Se Puede  rotate around 10 times per day in the large space and Elliott-Chandler says as student complete their work online, instant data is used for teachers to make decisions on what activity a student should do next or what remediation or help a student needs.

The data aggregated that day and week is also used to plan instruction daily, weekly, and monthly.

(Next page: PD, time, and funding for blended schools)

Teachers at Si Se Puede also begin every school year with three weeks of PD in August to best develop instructional best practices (for example, how to administer assessments), and receive PD in analyzing trends and data.

Every Thursday afternoon, teachers meet to discuss their day and to collaborate. Teachers also have meetings four days a week to plan with other teachers and meet once a week with their coaches.

“We learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t, with blended learning, not so much from scientific research—since there’s not a lot out there at the moment, anyway—but from what we’ve heard from our own schools. It’s mostly internal data that we know how to analyze and put into action,” said Bufalino.

Part of what helps teachers to analyze data is software. Si Se Puede currently uses Illuminate for weekly data assessments and Schoolzilla for data warehousing.

Other programs used for OLPs include Dreambox Learning, ST Math, and iReady. The school also uses Education Elements as its online portal—a software Elliott-Chandler said is critical for schools implementing online learning.

Elliott-Chandler noted that while the blended learning model, when used effectively with data analysis, is great for boosting student achievement, student responsibility, and student familiarity with technology, there are still some challenges.

“Many teachers are still nervous when it comes to relying on OLPs because if a component of technology doesn’t work like it should, they’re left scrambling; they worry about their performance. But that’s normal and it’s just like any other school using technology. It’s not necessarily specific to blended learning.”

Another challenge is the start-up funding for more blended learning public charter schools, though Rocketship Education says many communities are willing to contribute for the start-up costs if it means their children can have access to a good education.

“The start-up costs [which typically are needed for the first 18 months of the school’s operation] are needed for things like payroll because even though our schools run solely on the state’s per-pupil expenditure [roughly $5,400 per pupil in Cali.], the initial state funding doesn’t come for about three months,” explained Elliott-Chandler. “Part of the beauty of our success is that we do manage to run on the state’s allotted per-pupil funding, because it means that this model can be scalable for many other schools in the state! We’re not ‘creaming’ students out and we’re not some gleaming castle on a hill-we’re in the communities, serving local students and everyone is invited to learn at our school.”

“Our schools are able to run on what’s allotted because though we’re a large school, we typically have less teachers and less physical classrooms. We can better allocate resources, like for PD,” said Bufalino. “We pay teachers 30 percent more on average than schools in the surrounding area.”

Rocketship Education is about to open its first school in Milwaukee, and has been approved for an additional seven schools. In 2015 the network will also expand to Tenn., D.C., and Indianapolis.

“At the end of the day, it’s less about state politics about charters and more about the community,” said Bufalino. “We want to be in any area with large achievement gaps. Right now we have 2,500 families on the wait list for our schools and it keeps growing. So we’re not just trying to grow to grow, we’re here to serve our communities.”

Editor’s note: This is the second part in our series on blended and hybrid learning. Read Part 1 here.

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