Classroom Technology

‘Hybrid’ Charter Schools on the Rise

By Michelle R. Davis — June 15, 2011 8 min read
Freshman Yana Failor works on her laptop at San Francisco Flex Academy, a hybrid charter high school where students are offered Web-based curriculum and face-to-face instruction.
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Five days a week, high school students stream into a building that once housed the old San Francisco Press Club. A biometric fingerprint scanner takes attendance as they enter a building adorned with wooden wainscoting and fireplaces. Students access their laptops under crystal chandeliers and study digital content in the club’s old reading room, which still features a mahogany bar.

While the setting evokes an older era, the San Francisco Flex Academy charter school is thoroughly modern. Though the students attend school every day, their courses are offered through an online curriculum accessed through students’ laptop computers. But Flex Academy also has teachers of core subjects—English, history, math, and science—on site, who meet with small groups of students throughout the day to troubleshoot areas where students are lagging, based on information collected by online assessments.

Albero Berul, a junior, likens it to an office setting: Students work independently and with others on projects, and meet in small groups with teachers. Berul says he sought out the school after becoming frustrated in the overcrowded classes in his regular public school, where he earned B’s and C’s.

“It just wasn’t working for me,” says Berul, who is now a straight-A student. “I knew I could do better. Here they’re really focused on individualized attention.”

Across the country, the numbers of hybrid or blended charter schools are on the rise. Loosely based on the idea of combining face-to-face education with online instruction, these hybrid charters can often look very different. Some are primarily virtual schools that have added a limited face-to-face component. At others, like Flex Academy, students attend school in person daily.

The reasons behind the popularity of such schools are as myriad as their forms. For the for-profit virtual charter school companies, it’s good business, since the number of students who can participate in full-time online schools is limited. In other cases, financial woes have pushed charter schools to think about new ways to deliver learning. Others cite the goal of ultra-personalization in giving students both an online teacher and a face-to-face one.

Students work individually and in groups throughout the day. The chandeliers are remnants from when the building served as the San Francisco Press Club.

“There are tons of different models, and it’s exciting and messy,” says Michael Horn, the executive director of education at the Innosight Institute, a Mountain View, Calif.-based nonprofit organization that advocates innovative practices in education. He is a co-author of the 2008 book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.

“What we’re moving toward,” Horn says, “is the realization that if our expectation is to educate every single child successfully, then we need structures that can individualize and personalize, and there’s no way to do it in the way we have historically approached this.”

Of course, many of these models are still in their infancy and remain unproven. And the focus can’t be on the latest technology, argue educators such as John Danner, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Rocketship Education, an elementary charter school that serves more than 1,000 students on three different campuses in San Jose, Calif., and combines face-to-face instruction with online learning. Instead, he says the focus must be on what truly works for students.

“I think technology is over-hyped right now,” says Danner. “We need to make sure we don’t get too enamored of the technology.”

Serving Working Parents

Many hybrid charter school models are brand-new; they’re still working out the kinks and hoping they see big achievement numbers on state testing. The 2010-11 school year is Flex Academy’s first, and the hybrid charter high school has 100 students.

Students’ laptops are stored and locked in cabinets whenever they are not being used.

Mark Kushner, the school’s executive director, says he expects to have 250 students next year and has plans to open several similar charter schools. San Francisco Flex Academy uses a virtual curriculum provided by K12 Inc., a for-profit online education company based in Herndon, Va.

“The virtual school model is wonderful for those families with the ability to have their children at home or supervised in their workspace, but the majority of families can’t do that,” Kushner says. “This [hybrid setting] enables families to use … the K12 curriculum, but it solves the custodial issue.”

That custodial issue—the need for many parents to have their children supervised during the workday—is a driving force behind some hybrid charter schools, even if it’s not an academic one.

Another K12 Inc. school, the 4,700-student Arizona Virtual Academy, had been nearly all-virtual for most if its eight years until this school year, when officials partnered with YMCAs statewide to create drop-in centers, says Megan B. Henry, the head of school. Visiting the centers isn’t mandatory, however, and students attend in three-hour blocks. If students come more than three days a week, they get a free Y membership, Henry says.

About 250 students are using the drop-in centers. So far, the school has few statistics to determine whether those students get an academic boost, but Henry says retention rates have already increased.

The Arizona school’s all-virtual model limited the number of students who could attend, Henry says. “When we looked at the reasons parents don’t choose us, or leave us, a lack of socialization was an issue, and families with two parents working was a problem,” she says. “This helps fulfill a need.”

That problem becomes a business dilemma for companies like K12 that are looking to expand, Horn says. “They’ve had to start looking at blended options to continue fueling their growth and profit,” he says. “By necessity, they had to expand in the hybrid area to deliver for their investors and better serve kids.”

At the 230-student Carpe Diem Collegiate High School and Middle School, based in Yuma, Ariz., students spend 60 percent of their time on computers during the day and 40 percent on face-to-face instruction, says Rick Ogston, the executive director. Each student is assigned a PC in a cubicle as his or her own workspace and follows a daily schedule that can be adjusted based on the student’s need for more individualized attention from on-site teachers, either one-on-one or in small workshops, Ogston says.

Hybrid Conversion

Though Carpe Diem has been around for a decade, it converted to the current format, based on a digital curriculum, six years ago. “One of the most important lessons we’ve learned is that it’s not about technology. It’s about leveraging technology wisely,” Ogston says.

When we looked at the reasons parents don’t choose us, or leave us, a lack of socialization was an issue, and families with two parents working was a problem. This helps fulfill a need.”

Both the face-to-face and online components are critical to success, he says. The online curriculum frees teachers to provide individual attention and enrichment to students; the assessments built into the online components provide a real-time window into how students are doing on a daily basis.

Students are responsible for their own learning, Ogston says. They can move at their own pace, but if they are “irresponsible with their time in any given week,” they’ll have to spend more mandated time at school to help them focus, he says.

While Ogston embraced the hybrid model after his school was in operation for several years, Michael Kerr, the founding principal of KIPP Empower Academy, based in Los Angeles, was pushed into it. His initial plan was to open a more traditional version of the Knowledge Is Power Program charter elementary school, but California’s budget crisis cut more than $270,000 from funding for his proposal right off the bat.

Science and math teacher Dan Kirshner teaches students in his small classroom at San Francisco Flex Academy.

Instead, a San Francisco-based foundation (which wishes to remain anonymous) stepped in and offered a grant of $200,000 to finance a technology-based model. The school, in its first year of operation, has four classes of 28 low-income kindergartners, and 15 computers in each room. Each class has a lead teacher and either an instructional assistant or a rookie teacher. Twice a day, the pupils use digital curriculum on the computers for 25 minutes at a time, which enables the class to break into three small groups: one on the computers, one with the lead teacher, and another with the assistant or novice teacher.

The school is using a digital curriculum that allows students to move forward quickly if they master the material and circles them back to concepts they haven’t grasped, Kerr says. Most of the students came into the program with no computer experience; by the end of the first month, 80 percent could independently log on to the school dashboard, which provides curriculum choices.

Though it’s still early, there are some positive results, Kerr says. In the beginning of the year, a literacy assessment found that 9 percent of the students were proficient. By midyear, 85 percent were proficient, he says.

“We’re cutting costs and getting a lot of data,” Kerr says. “It has helped us save a lot of money, but it has also given kids access to 21st-century skills they wouldn’t otherwise have.”

The hybrid charter model is also being used to address particular groups of students who have struggled in other settings. At Chicago’s Youth Connection Charter School Virtual High School, a partnership of the city’s school system and K12 Inc., the target is high school dropouts. The Chicago district has an estimated 15,000 dropouts a year, says Early King, the head of school, and he wanted to address that problem. In the YCCS model, students are typically attending just to earn the few remaining credits needed for a high school diploma and often stay only a semester or two.

The students have face-to-face teachers in addition to online teachers, and King says it was a struggle at first to get those educators on the same page. Now the school has mandated biweekly meetings for teachers to discuss students and tailor both their online and in-person offerings accordingly.

Students, who receive free laptops and Internet connections, spend three hours a day at the school building and are expected to work independently off site for two hours a day. Many have children or jobs, and the flexibility of the school day allows them to be successful, King says. The school also offers a work-study program, allowing students to get academic credit for job experience. There’s a counselor on site, and there are social outlets, such as a student council, exercise classes, and movie days.

In its first year of operation, the school’s graduation rate was 94 percent, with an 88 percent student-retention rate, King says.

“Students can work on their own, but they also get the support and the social aspect,” he says. “This is like a win-win.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2011 edition of Digital Directions as Hybrid Charters on the Move


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