Classroom Technology Opinion

Grad Nation’s Blends Boosts Grad Rates & Achievement

By Tom Vander Ark — August 01, 2012 3 min read
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Grad Nation
is a comprehensive effort to boost the nation’s graduation rate from about 75 percent to 90 percent by 2020. Launched in May 2010, Grad Nation is a project
of America’s Promise. There are about 60 supporting sponsors and donors, one of them is Apex Learning, a digital
high school curriculum provider based in Seattle.

A year ago

Apex kicked off a Grad Nation blended learning partnership

with four school districts that includes digital curriculum and professional services. With the goal of boosting graduation and college readiness, the
projects feature students moving at their own pace, teachers freed up from whole group instruction to spend more time working one-on-one with students, and
real-time data on student performance.

St. Mary’s County Public Schools
in Southern Maryland is one of the partner districts. Superintendent Dr. Michael Martirano is already seeing progress. “The results we’re getting with our
online and blended learning concept is just remarkable,” said Dr. Martirano.

The partnership offer came at a good time for Martirano, “I had to cut my operating budget, which was approximately $180 million, by $13 million.” He
added, “We had to shift our resources. Grad Nation has allowed us to advance blended learning at a time when local funding is limited for innovative

St Mary’s is a diverse county about 60 miles Southeast of Washington D.C. with a mixture of rural and urban challenges. Martirano’s main emphasis was to
“accelerate students to achieve at their grade level--credit recovery starting at unit recovery--a true intervention.”

“Students use Apex Learning during the school day as a scheduled period,” explained Teri Citterman from Apex. “It’s a blended learning environment with a
certified teacher who monitors each student.”

The district used the Apex curriculum at Great Mills High School last year and is expanding the program to include all three high schools in September.
"[About] one in five students who graduated at Great Mills High School this year participated in an online offering,” said Martirano, “and the graduation
rate increased eight percentage points from 75 percent to 83 percent.”

“I’m a huge proponent of this offering to the point; in these tough financial times I’ve added three new positions at our high schools with the intention
of providing blended learning offerings for more students,” said Martirano. He continued, “I didn’t want another year to go by without us responding with a
sense of urgency.”

Based on the early success, St. Mary’s is using system and Race to the Top funds to lease laptops in order to implement blended learning environments (see
the recent blog on lease vs. buy). Last year, Year one funds were employed to improve
their network infrastructure in order to advance the delivery of digital content. Ultimately, St. Mary’s goal is to put a digital device in the hands of
every student so that all students have the opportunity to experience a blended learning environment.

Blended learning “created another pathway for students to be successful,” Martirano said. “My expectation from here over the next three to five years is to
have blended learning be the norm and not the exception.” Continuing last year’s model, the district will be supporting teacher learning with a “robust
professional development schedule” in partnership with Apex Learning.

Grad Nation is a useful umbrella with an appropriately ambitious goal. It created the frame for the productive partnership between a vendor and a school
district. The partnership illustrates that a little guidance and support goes a long way when there is goal clarity and urgency.

With the Common Core State Standards and the shift to digital learning, “It is an invigorating time to be leading a school system--as a superintendent, you
have to love the work!”

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The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.