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Breathing Life into Urban Ed with Blended Learning

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By Carri Schneider

As a big believer in the potential of blended learning to personalize instruction, I'm always excited to hear about schools shifting to blended learning. As a big believer in education as the most important social justice issue of our time, I get even more excited when these schools bring personalized, blended learning to traditionally-underserved student populations. Getting an opportunity to visit such a school, with a strong record of success, and in my own community? Well that kicks "excited" up a notch to "totally giddy."

Carpe Diem, Yuma.

Maybe you've heard of Carpe Diem in Yuma, Arizona. If you've been around the blended learning space for awhile, perhaps you were around when Carpe Diem was one of tiny handful of blended learning schools in action. My introduction to Carpe Diem happened when a colleague shared a youtube video about the model. If you've seen it, I'm willing to bet you were asking yourself the same question I was, "Why doesn't learning look like this for students everywhere?"

Carpe Diem founder Rick Ogston, who began developing the model in 2003, is on a mission to address that question. Thoughtfully, Ogston opened the original Carpe Diem campus but wouldn't expand until there was proof that the original model could deliver on the promise of personalized, blended learning. It didn't take long to get those results. The school continues to outpace the average math and reading scores for the state. In 2010, Yuma's Carpe Diem scored the highest in math, with 100 percent of their sixth graders passing Arizona's standardized test. The high school graduation rate continues to exceed the state average by double digits. The proof was in the blended pudding, and it was time to expand.

Carpe Diem, Indianapolis.

Three new Carpe Diem schools have since opened, with plans underway for more. The first year results at the Carpe Diem Meridian campus in Indianapolis--Yuma's first sibling and one of two in Indianapolis--quickly confirmed beliefs that the scalable model had legs! Serving a diverse student population with 63% eligible for free or reduced lunch, Meridian's results on the stateside ISTEP standardized test revealed an overall passage rate of 80% across all content, with English scores surpassing the previous year's pre-blended learning scores by 16% in 6th grade, 28% in 7th grade and 42% in 8th grade. The results, coupled with fulfilment of Ogston's real goal to provide more personalized learning and better educational opportunities, confirmed the power of the model.

Carpe Diem, Cincinnati.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the latest addition to the Carpe Diem family - Cincinnati's Carpe Diem at Aiken. The newly-born school, still in its earliest weeks of life having just opened in the fall, is already showing signs of improving opportunities for students who stand the most to gain from an educational model that is organized around their individual needs. Nestled inside a large, traditional public urban high school in Cincinnati, Ogston explains that two-thirds of the students who enrolled this year began between five and nine grade levels behind the grade level in which they enrolled. These are students who have been failed by their past educational experiences. As Ogston tells it, these are families who cry angry tears when their perception of reality is shattered, when their children who have been told for years that they are successfully passing each course, who have earned As and Bs and passed on to the next grade level, are suddenly presented with data that shows they are years beyond where they should be.

It's no wonder that the school's motto goes beyond academics to include the powerful charge to "Educate, Empower, Equip Learners for Life." It's also no surprise that meeting this set of audacious goals does not happen easily. Rick Ogston shared his thoughts on making blended learning work for the students who need it most based on his experiences in the schools he's opened. It wasn't until I reviewed our notes that I realized Ogston has found the formula for breathing life back into urban education with his own special form of CPR.

C = Culture. Thoughtful attention must be given to the overall culture and climate of the school since the new blended environment, organized around student needs, is largely unrecognizable for the majority of students and their families. Everything from the school facilities and organization of physical space to the school schedule and nature of personal interactions affects the school culture, and therefore must be intentionally developed and continuously cultivated. There's a fair amount of acculturation that has to occur during the nascent stages of blended school development and as new students arrive to already-established blended schools. Students have to ignore the "muscle memory" from years in a vastly-different system and "unlearn" what they think learning looks like. The same is true for the other adults in the system - parents, teachers, leaders - who often experience a bit of "culture shock" when they are given unfamiliar freedoms.

P = Personalization. To build a setting with personalized learning as its primary goal, everything must be oriented around learners. Ogston urges Carpe Diem teachers and leaders to always stay focused on "the kid that's before us." At Carpe Diem, the data is the connection between the time students spend online and the time they spend with teachers. Ubiquitous, granular data about each student's learning trajectory creates a "hyper-awareness" of student achievement in real-time that can't be ignored by teachers, students, or the system. Individual student data is a key ingredient in powering personalization and dictates goal-setting as well as the elements that daily learning experiences will include. However, Ogston cautions that "data isn't everything" and asserts that "data is there to help us ask more questions; data itself is not the answer."

R = Relationships. The only way to customize learning is to get to know each student on an individual level. At Carpe Diem, adults start by asking students who and what they want to become in order to find that "hook" that will allow teachers to create meaningful learning experiences tied to their personal life goals. Finding the right teachers and the right leaders is essential to making these relationships work. At Carpe Diem, that means teachers must be truly passionate content-experts with a strong work ethic and a "whatever it takes" attitude who believe in the power of personalized learning to help students soar. Ogston feels strongly that you just can't underscore the importance of strong leadership enough. Pointing to the impact on the school culture and climate after the tragic loss of Carpe Diem Yuma's first principal, Ogston explains, "All of this really comes down to good leadership."

Ogston is right. It's his own leadership that has set Carpe Diem on a trajectory of success, and Carpe Diem has earned the attention it deserves. With four schools now serving students and plans for more, it's a model with potential to give students a chance at a better life and what better achievement can there be than that?

Special thanks to Rick Ogston and the staff of Carpe Diem - Aiken for opening up their school to this visitor in such early stages of its life. The work you are all doing together has already created a culture that is making a difference for students in our community!

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