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Grad Nation's Blends Boosts Grad Rates & Achievement

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Grad Nation is a comprehensive effort to boost the nation's graduation rate from about 75 percent to 90 percent by 2020. Launched in May 2010, Grad Nation is a project of America's Promise. There are about 60 supporting sponsors and donors, one of them is Apex Learning, a digital high school curriculum provider based in Seattle.

A year ago Apex kicked off a Grad Nation blended learning partnership with four school districts that includes digital curriculum and professional services. With the goal of boosting graduation and college readiness, the projects feature students moving at their own pace, teachers freed up from whole group instruction to spend more time working one-on-one with students, and real-time data on student performance.

St. Mary's County Public Schools in Southern Maryland is one of the partner districts. Superintendent Dr. Michael Martirano is already seeing progress. "The results we're getting with our online and blended learning concept is just remarkable," said Dr. Martirano.

The partnership offer came at a good time for Martirano, "I had to cut my operating budget, which was approximately $180 million, by $13 million." He added, "We had to shift our resources. Grad Nation has allowed us to advance blended learning at a time when local funding is limited for innovative strategies."

St Mary's is a diverse county about 60 miles Southeast of Washington D.C. with a mixture of rural and urban challenges. Martirano's main emphasis was to "accelerate students to achieve at their grade level--credit recovery starting at unit recovery--a true intervention."

"Students use Apex Learning during the school day as a scheduled period," explained Teri Citterman from Apex. "It's a blended learning environment with a certified teacher who monitors each student."

The district used the Apex curriculum at Great Mills High School last year and is expanding the program to include all three high schools in September. "[About] one in five students who graduated at Great Mills High School this year participated in an online offering," said Martirano, "and the graduation rate increased eight percentage points from 75 percent to 83 percent."

"I'm a huge proponent of this offering to the point; in these tough financial times I've added three new positions at our high schools with the intention of providing blended learning offerings for more students," said Martirano. He continued, "I didn't want another year to go by without us responding with a sense of urgency."

Based on the early success, St. Mary's is using system and Race to the Top funds to lease laptops in order to implement blended learning environments (see the recent blog on lease vs. buy). Last year, Year one funds were employed to improve their network infrastructure in order to advance the delivery of digital content. Ultimately, St. Mary's goal is to put a digital device in the hands of every student so that all students have the opportunity to experience a blended learning environment.

Blended learning "created another pathway for students to be successful," Martirano said. "My expectation from here over the next three to five years is to have blended learning be the norm and not the exception." Continuing last year's model, the district will be supporting teacher learning with a "robust professional development schedule" in partnership with Apex Learning.

Grad Nation is a useful umbrella with an appropriately ambitious goal. It created the frame for the productive partnership between a vendor and a school district. The partnership illustrates that a little guidance and support goes a long way when there is goal clarity and urgency.

With the Common Core State Standards and the shift to digital learning, "It is an invigorating time to be leading a school system--as a superintendent, you have to love the work!"

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