Published Online: October 23, 2012
Published in Print: October 24, 2012, as Reality Fuels Innovation

L.A. School First in KIPP Network to Embrace Blended Learning

KIPP Empower embraces blended learning to pursue its mission in tough budget times

The original blueprint for the KIPP Empower Academy read something like this: five teachers per grade; 100 students per grade; very few classroom computers.

But when a plummeting economy led to the elimination in 2009 of California state funding that rewarded elementary schools for keeping their class sizes at around 20 students or fewer, founding Principal Mike Kerr felt forced to shift in a different direction to preserve the central principle of small-group instruction in his not-yet-opened K-2 charter elementary school in southern Los Angeles.

"In essence, we lost about $115,000 in one swoop with losing class-size-reduction funding," said Mr. Kerr. He added that additional cuts resulting from the ongoing financial crisis had cost the school an additional $85,000 for a total of $200,000, roughly the equivalent of three teacher salaries. "We discussed whether blended learning could be a vehicle to allow us to first and foremost preserve the small-group instruction and see how we could make that happen."

What resulted was the first school to embrace a fully blended learning model in the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, charter school network, a 125-school organization that is among the largest and best-known charter operators in the nation. The focus of the nonprofit network since the organization's inception in 1994 has been on creating schools capable of preparing students from underprivileged areas to gain admission to college, through five organizational principles: high expectations, parental and student choice and commitment, more time spent learning and studying, leadership autonomy, and a focus on achievement results.

The early success of KIPP Empower—its 100 percent teacher-retention rate through its third year of operation, and its work at the K-2 level, an age group often thought to be too young for the blended rotational model of schooling—could potentially lead to imitators throughout the network, especially at more recently founded schools. In a blended rotational model, students in a classroom move between stations that include working online on classroom computers, as well as working face-to-face with teachers or paraprofessionals.

Mr. Kerr, who also utilized blended learning to a lesser degree when he served for five years as founding principal of the Achievement First Crown Heights Elementary Charter School in New York City, acknowledges that, in today's budget climate, his current school's success is only possible through the blended model. Yet he takes every opportunity to also express caution about the larger movement for blended learning.

"We're skeptics here, and we're not folks who are toeing the party line for blended learning," said Mr. Kerr, whose school has used adaptive software to enable a more affordable instructional model, in which four teachers are assigned per grade of 110 students, down from the originally proposed 5-to-100 ratio. A case studyRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader from the Austin, Texas-based Michael & Susan Dell Foundation estimated a savings of $965 per student gained through the reimagined model for the 2011-12 school year.

"I think everyone is looking for the shortcut and looking for that quick fix, and there is never going to be a shortcut or a quick fix in education," Mr. Kerr said. "It's always going to come down to hard work, trying to be smart, and trying to do what's best for kids."

Laptop Lessons

Even some of his own teaching staff at first feared that using adaptive-learning software would amount to babysitting, rather than productive supplemental work. But Mr. Kerr insisted that the approach can yield a productive experience even for entering pupils as young as age 4 or 5, provided the model is deliberate and not too time consuming.

At KIPP Empower, that model calls for kindergartners to spend roughly 11 percent of their extended, 8½-hour school day working on reading or math exercises on a laptop computer. The school has phased in a new grade each year, and the proportion of computer time climbs slowly to 16 percent by 2nd grade. But classes at the school feel, by and large, similar to other early-elementary classrooms around the country, with equal parts carpet squares, group songs and rhymes, and colors and shapes designed to appeal to the young soul as well as mind.

Results

While KIPP Empower Academy administrators and teachers have generally been pleased with the results of their rotational blended learning model, it’s hard to pin down the impact of that model alone on student achievement. Educators at the school also have expressed some frustration that few software programs exist yet for pupils in grades K-2 that are capable of mirroring the arc of the face-to-face math and English/language arts curriculum. The overall results have been positive, however, with encouraging results on the Strategic Teaching and Evaluation of Progress, or STEP, literacy test, and the Measure of Academic Progress, or MAP, test, during the school’s first year. And the school has become one of the KIPP network’s most popular for other current and future school leaders to visit and observe.

The rotational blended model is meant to be an extension of that approach.

"I feel like we are meeting the students at their levels, so there's definitely an emotional part of that" model, said Alonda Casselle, the school's dean of culture and after-school-program coordinator. The adaptive software used in the model is generally designed to log student progress on individual concepts and respond to that progress by either accelerating or easing the difficulty of the content depending on a student's needs.

Further, the set of 15 laptops in each of the school's 12 classrooms stays anchored within the classroom to help keep a community atmosphere within the room even when the children are using the computers. For teachers, that means exceptional classroom management-skills are imperative, perhaps even more so than technological acumen.

"You really as a teacher have to think of every single step that they're going to do and break it down," said Karla Cienfuegos, a kindergarten teacher who was one of the four founding lead teachers when the school welcomed its first kindergarten class in August 2010.

Kindergartners in Ms. Cienfuegos' class are broken into two or three groups for all of their core subjects—reading, writing, math, and science—and in the first three subjects spend blocks of time rotating between workstations led by herself, intervention teacher Monica Gallo, or an automated laptop lesson. Ms. Gallo, along with paraprofessional teaching assistants, is a shared resource for Ms. Cienfuegos and her three kindergarten lead-teacher colleagues.

The result is an intricate scheme of student movement that works only if the children are comfortable both in their logged-on and logged-off surroundings.

"If you want them to stand up and go one way, you do that, and you practice and you practice and you practice until you get it right," Ms. Cienfuegos said.

Technology and Achievement

Educators can also feel some frustration with the quality of available software for students as young as those at the KIPP Empower Academy, Mr. Kerr said. That's partly because the industry simply doesn't focus as much on the early grades, he said, but also because the school is attempting to move toward programs that give students consistent and constructive feedback on their own progress, not just provide usable data for teachers.

And while teachers say they have learned valuable information about their students from data provided through a range of about a half-dozen math and reading programs the school uses, they haven't yet gained an ability to directly mesh the work on student laptops with lessons led by teachers. That's something Ms. Cienfuegos said she would like to move toward.

Her colleague M.J. Mathis said, though, that as long as computers allow more individualized instruction, it's OK if they are only an imperfect match for the lessons she delivers.

"I appreciate and I know that a lot of research has been done looking into what games are going to be effective for the kids," said Ms. Mathis, who was also a founding kindergarten teacher. "Honestly, from a teacher's perspective, I am not as concerned on what they are doing on the computers, but I am more concerned with the fact that I can have small groups, because they are on the computers for such a short amount of time in the grand scheme of the day."

Perhaps for that reason, KIPP Empower has become one of the KIPP organization's best-known elementary school models. Its teachers appear satisfied with their job descriptions, as well as their students' progress, and not one teaching-staff member has left in the school's first two years, though some have grown into more senior positions.

Meanwhile, the school has shown potentially promising achievement results as well. On the Strategic Teaching and Evaluation of Progress, or STEP, literacy test, an assessment designed by the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute, the proportion of KIPP Empower pupils reading at a "proficient" or "advanced" level jumped from 36 percent to 96 percent during the course of its inaugural 2010-11 school year, according to the Dell Foundation case study. On the Measure of Academic Progress, or MAP, test created by the Portland, Ore.-based Northwest Evaluation Association, 96 percent of that same 110-student inaugural class scored above average in both reading and mathematics, according to the study.

As a result, more educators from across KIPP's 125 schools and 31 regional consortia are hoping to learn from what is happening at KIPP Empower, as are potential future KIPP school leaders who are progressing through the Fisher Fellowship educational leadership program that Mr. Kerr completed before launching KIPP Empower. That is so, despite his repeated emphasis on being skeptical of doing any sort of blended learning model simply for blended learning's sake.

"In the presentations that those Fisher Fellows gave for their school design plans this August, over half of them talk about blended learning," Mr. Kerr said. "Two years ago, no one was talking about it."

Steve Mancini, KIPP's public-affairs director, echoed Mr. Kerr's stance that neither blended learning nor any other trend in education should be perceived as an easy fix to the problem of creating pathways to college for students in underserved communities.

And mostly, schools launched under the KIPP umbrella have emphasized a fairly traditional classroom environment and pedagogy, combined with extra resources, time, quality, and effort sometimes not always available in district-run public schools in the same communities.

"There is no magic bullet, and there is no secret sauce," Mr. Mancini said. "It's about great teaching, and more of it."

But he also said the impression that KIPP in any way had been against technology or blended learning in the past is false. He added that because Fisher Fellows visit already-operating KIPP schools as part of their education, and because of the organization's emphasis on allowing educators within the network to learn from one another, the KIPP Empower Academy's success may be pushing other educators from the organization in a way they hadn't been before.

If anything, KIPP schools have lagged behind the trend of blended learning, which Mr. Kerr said may not necessarily be a bad thing, considering how "faddish" educational models can be. Still, the KIPP Washington Heights Middle School, in its first year of operation in New York, and the KIPP Ascent Primary and Middle schools in Chicago, in their third and 10th years of operation, respectively, are all implementing portions of Mr. Kerr's blended learning model for their mathematics instruction.

At KIPP Empower, the greatest success of the blended model may be in how well it's camouflaged with the rest of school. While kindergartners generally need a week of practice to learn logging on and logging off their individual portals, the work with the adaptive program soon becomes just another measure of children's academic success and their progress toward long-term goals.

Pupils such as Darryl Lewis, now a 2nd grader, immediately understood the importance of learning how to function on the new technology when he started kindergarten a few days late. "I was worried that I wouldn't be as smart as the other kids" on the computer, he said.

"So I thought when the other kids in my class were going to go to college, I wouldn't," he recalled. "I was going to have to stay in kindergarten."

Darryl found, though, that it only took "a few days" to catch up.

Vol. 32, Issue 09, Pages s14,s15

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