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Grant-Beacon Middle School Builds Character, Extends and Blends Learning

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Grant-Beacon Middle School (GBMS) serves 460 students, predominantly of color, 85% live in/near poverty and 40% are English language learners. With two centers of expertise, the school serves a high percentage of students with special needs.

What was a working class neighborhood of southeast Denver 40 years ago when my wife went to school there is now a gentrifying neighborhood where small brick bungalows fetch more than half a million making it difficult for Grant-Beacon families to live in the neighborhood, 80% choose GBMS and are bussed in.

Four years ago Principal Alex Magaña describes a clear mission: high achievement and growth for all students, providing a college preparatory program of study that sets high expectations and requires critical thinking and problem solving skills.

The school and website are full of visual evidence of three core strategies: blended learning, extended learning opportunities, and charter development. These three elements have served as the pillars of their work since the GMBS team sought to change what learning looked liked for their students.

Former social studies teacher, Kevin Croghan leads the blended learning strand. With support from Janus Funds, the school adopted a combination of a flex and class rotation model with Google Chromebooks for every student. GBMS uses Google apps for communications and student work, the open Moodle learning management system and Engrade gradebook.

In his fourth year in the blended model, Mr. Grampp, rotates between four centers in his English class. Students work on skill building exercises on their Chromebooks preparing to write an essay. Students could describe what they were learning and why it was important. The 33 sixth graders were all on task working individually or in small groups. Compared to his first 15 years of teaching, Mr. Grampp said he was confident that he was doing a better job reaching kids on both ends of the spectrum (with reading levels often ranging from grade 2 to 11).

On Mr. Grampp's whiteboard you can see assignments for grammar app NoRedInk. The library collection is tagged for leveled reading and Accelerated Reader assessments.

In Ms. D'Anielle's math class, you will see lessons linked to power standards. Many include Khan Academy videos and assessments.

As part of launching the blended learning program, Magaña understood the importance of extended learning opportunities. With some additional district support, GBMS extended the day by an hour (to 7:35am-3:55pm) and added a choice of 60 enrichment opportunities including additional tutoring for students that need extra help. A late start on Fridays gives teachers a couple hours of professional development time.

Also key to the GBMS story is an emphasis on character development. Five traits are visually evident everywhere including the theater (in English and Spanish). A comprehensive observation and feedback system is built into Engrade and provides real time data on CPA (character point average) as well as GPA.

Croghan explains that the team shifts emphasis to develop each component at a deeper level, but all three remain central to their work. "Once we had real legs under a program, we would divert more attention to another while continuing to progress on each."

The blended environment has brought a new level of excitement to students and teachers. Science teacher, Jeff Kurtz admits that he once thought he would never teach without traditional textbooks -- he still uses them, but now they serve as tools to build ramps in his physics class. He has embraced the new model, is passionate about his role and is seeing huge success in his students.

There are no tracks at Grant-Beacon. Magaña said they want 100% of their students to be challenged every day.

As an Innovation School, Denver Public Schools allows GBMS a charter-like autonomy. Magaña and his team are planning on replicating their success at another DPS middle school next year.

For additional Blended Learning Stories, check out:

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