Blended Learning | Feature

School Reform Through Blended Learning

One of the lowest performing schools in Washington, DC is looking to blended learning to help raise proficiency levels and student engagement. So far, it's working.

When Principal Kwame Simmons was assigned to turn around the academic performance at Kramer Middle School in 2010, the situation looked bleak.

According to Simmons, the statistics were "staggering."

"Eighty-nine percent free and reduced lunch, 33 percent special education, which is 23 percent higher than the national average, 30 percent truancy, 18 percent and 17 percent math and reading respectively on the state tests, so it was just deplorable, the performance," Simmons said.

But through a combination of solid management and the effective use of technology, Kramer is indeed seeing a turnaround in academic performance.

First, Simmons and his staff "firmed up policies and procedures" and reduced truancy to 10 percent. At the same time, they added support for special education and made sure needs were responded to in a timely fashion.

"And then we just grabbed the instructional model by the horns by starting with universal language," Simmons said. "So we did book studies and selected language that we all agreed upon would be used to talk about instruction. And at the end of the year we recognized an 11 percent increase in math, and 15 percent increase in special education, so that was a tipping point."

Next, Simmons received permission from District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Kaya Henderson to reconstitute the staff, a process in which most teachers and staff members must reapply for their positions.

"The average teacher evaluation score was .5 below the district average. So you had very needy students as well as very needy teachers to try and bring about this sustained reform, and that just didn't mesh well and it didn't make sense," Simmons said. "In having that opportunity [to reconstitute] we released 98 percent of the adults to really start fresh."

To replace those who were let go, Simmons said he brought in "a very dynamic cast of adults, people who had demonstrated excellence in working in schools with high poverty, who are very collaborative in their approach, and people who are just very assertive and demonstrated a knack for not accepting losses as okay."

Around the same time--at the end of the 2010-2011 school year--Kramer received a three-year, $1.4 million School Improvement Grant, followed in the fall by a Race to the Top grant to DCPS. Kramer was targeted as the district's turnaround school, and Simmons was given the freedom to spend as much as 50 percent of the school year travelling the country and researching models to reach the goal while still being principal.

By December, Simmons said he knew that he wanted to institute a blended learning model at Kramer.

"So I decided to reach out to a few programs that had gifted and talented curriculum," Simmons said.

Eventually, he settled on a program from Johns Hopkins University, the Center for Talented Youth Online, and 42 students from grades 6-8 began splitting their class time between face-to-face and online instruction. To access the course, students use some of the 85 iPads the schools purchased with a portion of the grant funds.

"And we realized in two-and-a-half months the students had increased a grade level or more, you know, through things like acceleration, personalized learning, feedback," and "the students' level of engagement was well beyond some of the other classes with teachers who were pretty solid at their classroom management," SImmons said.

"How could we take what was happening in just a few classes and do a full immersion throughout the building," Simmons asked, and that, he said, is when he began having conversations with Adaptive Curriculum (AC).

"We've been very, very intentional," Simmons said of the process. "We started working with Adaptive Curriculum in February" to "integrate them into our online courses as robust resources for the teachers and the students. So if a teacher is talking about the digestive system...reading about the esophagus and the throat cavity and these parts of the digestive system, Adaptive Curriculum has activity objects that will then provide video and visuals for students to really see what this process looks like and how they can engage. We have iPads and other touch technology that will allow them to really deepen and enrich their learning through these interactive objects. That's what I think is a major plus."

Another thing Simmons said he liked about AC is that the company is "very aggressive" about adding new material.

"Every month they're introducing additional activity objects, so even throughout the year we'll probably end up with an additional 20-30 activity objects to support our grade level content," Simmons said. "These are the kinds of things that just don't exist in a traditional school setting and they definitely don't exist in schools that I support that are in dire need to have the most cutting edge, research-based support to increase their students' achievement and sustain it."

To support the new approach, Kramer is purchasing laptops to become a 1:1 school in the 2012-2013 year. The Brainhoney learning management system will house the courses, and Florida Virtual Schools and Johns Hopkins will provide additional support.

For their own preparation, teachers will participate in professional development scheduled for the beginning of the summer.

"We'll get out of school on June 14 and June 25 the teachers will come back and do a very, very intensive two-week plan to integrate [the new resources] into the school. We designed it that way so that as teachers develop this blended learning" program, they'll be able to adjust, Simmons said. Then, "if we determine throughout the professional development that teachers are struggling, or that they need additional assistance, that gives us the summer to support them prior to students returning to school."

"The teachers will actually progress through courses the way the students will progress through the course," Simmons explained. "And then they'll be taught about the design of the course," such as how to move lessons around and assign appropriate and personalized online instruction to students.

Simmons explained that students who are multiple grade levels behind in their academic proficiency aren't lacking all of the information from those grades.

In fact, they do know information from each of those levels "but they just haven't mastered enough to demonstrate full understanding," Simmons said. "So that's the purpose of the professional development as well, to ensure that the teachers are capable of assigning content that will support students where their needs are, so that students aren't sitting in class having to listen to something that they've already mastered."

To measure the effectiveness of the new program, Simmons said Kramer would use benchmarking tools from the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA).

"So that'll be the academic piece. The other goal that we're going to have is measuring the level of fun for students," Simmons said. "Because when you look at schools that are in suburban areas, or high performing schools, I mean those kids are having a good time. But part of the reason they're having a good time is they've come to the table with skill sets that allow them to access the information that's there, where at my school, kids don't have those skills, so they get reminded every class period of their deficits. I mean that just sucks."

But with the new tools, "the students can have headphones on, can struggle with reading, things can be read to them, so their business is private and yet they get a chance to really push themselves at their rate," Simmons explained.

To measure their level of fun, students will be surveyed several times throughout the year.

Moving forward, Simmons said he wants to open the doors at Kramer to educators from around the district and the country, as well as innovative companies.

"I would like for Kramer to become a training school for cutting edge practices," Simmons said. "I pause to say a laboratory school because if you say 'laboratory school' and 'kids who are underperforming' it's like 'oh you're just testing on kids who already aren't doing well.' So I don't want to say that. But in the sense of, we're testing out research-based practices through technology. I would love for companies to come by and visit and be supportive of this work because we're going to need to sustain this, and what I see at highly effective schools is that they have additional support outside of the school."

"One company who has stepped up to do that is a company called TVTextbook," said Simmons.

TVTextbook provides devices that deliver interactive curriculum through basic home television connections for students who don't have Internet access at home, which is common at Kramer. The company has donated $25,000 toward the purchase of the devices for next year's incoming sixth grade students.

"These grants are going to expire," Simmons said. And when they do, "I want to still have the support of the community and from companies to ensure that this work isn't in vain."