As Roman Catholic schools aggressively seek solutions to curb tumbling enrollment numbers, they are turning increasingly to an approach that blends online learning and face-to-face instruction as a way to cut expenses and appeal to new students and their families.
This blended approach comes as Catholic schools face competition not only from traditional public schools, but also from a growing number of charter schools, many of which are offering blended learning programs. (“Catholic Schools Feeling Squeeze From Charters,” Aug. 29, 2012.)
Last week, educators, researchers, and religious leaders from Catholic schools and organizations around the country met at the Catholic University of America in Washington to discuss the difficulties these schools are having keeping and attracting students, and the role that approaches such as blended learning might play in tackling that problem.
Education Week‘s special report, the second in a three-part 2012-13 series on virtual education, examines how a variety of models that mix face-to-face learning and online instruction are emerging and generating lessons learned for K-12 schools:
At the conference, Andrew Smarick, a former New Jersey deputy commissioner of education who has written extensively on how public schools can collaborate with Catholic schools, emphasized the importance of adopting new technology in a cautious and thoughtful manner. While he advised educators to be prudent when adopting new educational technology, he urges radical changes in Catholic schools, including the use of blended learning.
“It promises to solve many of our problems,” he said. “It can increase our enrollments, it can decrease our costs.”
Some Catholic schools have already seen success with blended learning approaches.
In San Francisco, Mission Dolores Academy started its blended learning program in fall 2011, after receiving a $500,000 technology grant from San Francisco-based Seton Education Partners, a nonprofit organization that aims to revitalize Catholic schools across the country. The K-8 Mission Dolores school uses blended learning in all grades—students spend about 20 to 30 minutes using online programs in each 60-minute class, and spend the rest of the time on face-to-face instruction.
In the last year, the school has seen the average math scores rise from 43 percent of students reaching grade-level proficiency to 59 percent, and reading scores improved from 43 to 49 percent, according to a 2012 report from the Arlington, Va.-based Lexington Institute titled “Building 21st Century Catholic Learning Communities.”
Dan Storz, the principal of Mission Dolores, said enrollment has increased from 215 last school year to 231 this school year.
Since the program began, Mr. Storz noted a change in classroom approaches, with teachers now having more opportunities to work with smaller groups of students.
“There’s a lot more opportunity for building that relationship between students and teachers,” Mr. Storz said.
The blended learning program’s biggest impact, however, has been the creation of more differentiated learning for the students, or “meeting the students where their needs are,” Mr. Storz pointed out.
Other Catholic schools around the country are taking notice of such successes.
In Seattle, St. Therese Catholic Academy, a pre-K-8 school, started a blended program this school year based on the same model.
The school’s enrollment was in a free fall—it dropped from a high of about 240 in the 1990s to a low of 90 before the 2011-12 school year—and that prompted the new initiative, said Joe Womac, the executive director of the Seattle-based Fulcrum Foundation, which helps fund Catholic schools in western Washington. The school “needed to attract more families by offering something unique,” he said. The school’s new hybrid approach means teachers have up to 35 students per class, but work with smaller groups that rotate from using laptops to access online curricula to face-to-face instruction. Students spend up to half their days working online, Mr. Womac said.
The model has allowed the school to save money by using fewer teachers and has attracted new students. This school year, enrollment is up to 180 and the school hopes to reach 250, Mr. Womac said.
But the St. Therese program has had both programmatic and financial support from outside groups, such as Mr. Womac’s, as well as Seton Education Partners, and a $300,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (The Gates Foundation also supports coverage in Education Week of the education marketplace and new approaches to schooling.) It’s not a transformation a Catholic school could easily undertake on its own, Mr. Womac admitted.
“I wouldn’t recommend a traditional Catholic school do the deep dive to 50-50 blended learning without consultation with multiple experts,” he said. But a school could “pick one or two online content providers and devote significant percentages of the day to that.”
Other Catholic school systems are laying the groundwork for significant investments in new learning models based on technology.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Faith in the Future Foundation reached an agreement this summer to create an independently managed Catholic school system that would encompass the 17 high schools within the archdiocese as well as its four schools of special education. Faith in the Future is now running those schools. At the conference held at Catholic University, Faith in the Future Chief Executive Officer Samuel Casey Carter said once the foundation has performed a market and financial analysis of the schools, the organization plans to use blended learning to enhance the offerings for higher-performing schools and improve productivity and assessment methods in lower-performing ones.
Lynne Sullivan, a senior program officer for the Boston-based Catholic Schools Foundation, which provides students with scholarships to attend Catholic schools in that city, conceded that Catholic schools have trailed behind public schools in technology investments in the past. But that delayed approach has now given them more flexibility to “leapfrog ahead” in terms of technology use. Since many Catholic schools did not invest heavily in infrastructure such as computer labs and desktops, they’re now free to jump on newer technology trends, such as tablet computing and wireless access.
Offering families high-tech ways to save on costs and showing prospective students that Catholic schools are on the cutting-edge is critical, said Christopher Stefanski, the director of technology for the 11,000-student Catholic Schools of the Paterson Diocese, in New Jersey.
“Whether or not it is the main reason, technology does play a role” in attracting students, he said. “We want to make sure that if a parent is looking at schools and sees the public school students using iPads, that we’re doing that too.”
A grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation helps support coverage of the education marketplace and new approaches to schooling in Education Week and on edweek.org.
A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2012 edition of Education Week as Catholic Schools Turn to Blended Learning