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In the Midwestern United States, one charter school’s approach to blended learning was ambitious right from the start. The first five Nexus Academy schools – three in Ohio (Cleveland, Columbus, and Toledo) and two in Michigan (Lansing and Grand Rapids) all launched on the same day: September 4, 2012. All were conceptualized, designed and launched as fully blended schools from the beginning, with the goal of creating an altogether different kind of high school. Nexus Academy schools are public and free to all students.
According to the founders of Nexus, the goals were to preserve the personalization of virtual schooling while providing a physical space that inspires learning. The Nexus model allows flexibility and freedom of movement for students, uses individual student learning data (as opposed to the rotational clock) to arrive at the appropriate balance between face-to-face and online instruction, and provides an innovative staffing model with altogether new roles for teachers and mentors. In this model, teachers and mentors focus on the academic and emotional well-being of each student.
The early results for Nexus Academy are very promising. At the end of its first school year (2012-13), the Nexus Academy network of schools saw 92 percent of its seniors graduate, with 95 percent of those graduates being accepted into college. Comparatively, the student graduation rates for Michigan and Ohio are 74 percent and 80 percent, respectively.
Blended Learning at Nexus
What sets Nexus Academy apart from traditional public schools and other public charter schools is a unique approach to campus space and student freedom, a strategic delivery of online learning, and a reliance on data to drive students’ daily experience.
Nexus students attend classes at a brick-and-mortar location four days a week. The schools are small by design, with an average total 9-12 grade enrollment at 300. According to the academy’s founders, recent research has shown that smaller, more intimate school environments can boost performance and graduation rates.
Students choose whether they will go to class in the morning (8:00 AM – 12:00 PM) or in the afternoon (12:30 PM – 4:30 PM). Morning sessions are held Monday through Thursday and afternoon sessions are Tuesday through Friday. Students typically spend fourteen hours per week on self-directed online lessons off campus, a.k.a. homework. This scheduling system serves two purposes. First, it ensures an optimal student-to-staff ratio throughout the week; and second, it allows students to engage in internships, take college classes, or pursue extracurricular activities such as athletics or performing arts.
Nexus gives students a great range of freedom during the typical school day. Its approach to campus space and school day structure is more akin to a college campus or modern office than a traditional school. Rather than a typical classroom – chalkboard at the front and rows of forward-facing desks – Nexus campuses have subject-specific classrooms, large open spaces with various workstations, and “team zones,” where students can collaborate on projects.
The typical school day begins with an advisory session, during which students engage in collaborative activities and skill-building exercises with their “Success Coaches,” who serve as personal student mentors. The advisory sessions are followed by small-group face-to-face classes with English and math teachers who help students master concepts. The remainder of the school day is spent in online coursework and virtual classes.
Teachers remain the mainstay of students’ learning experiences. They are the knowledge authorities and they deliver traditional lectures on core subjects. Nexus provides an all-digital curriculum taught by teachers who work with students, either face-to-face (math and English) or online (all other subjects). Teachers’ efforts are bolstered by the Success Coaches, who develop one-on-one relationships with students and can tailor an educational experience to a student’s specific needs and interests. Success Coaches serve as advisors and mentors to students, while also providing a critical link between parents and teachers. Each coach works one-on-one with students to identify strengths and weaknesses, develop action plans, set goals, and deliver individualized help when it is needed.
Students are free to tackle their work from almost anywhere on campus, and they can even listen to their choice of music while they work. They are guided by an online planner that shows which lessons and assessments they need to complete for a given day. Success Coaches monitor the lesson planner to ensure a student is staying on track, and parents can access similar information from an online Web portal to see how their son or daughter is performing.
Both the teachers and the Success Coaches benefit from unique technologies as they work to provide a customized learning experience. “Nexus Academy is a high school designed around each student from the ground up, with the daily routine driven by data about his or her learning and activities designed to maximize both academic performance and social and emotional growth,” said Mickey Revenaugh, executive vice president and co-founder of Connections Education.
The Nexus Academy approach to blended learning leverages advanced technology to provide students with customized educational experiences, and parents with unprecedented insight into their child’s progress.
Nexus uses two proprietary technologies to facilitate blended learning. The first is Connexus, an education management system provided by Connections Education, a subsidiary of Pearson. The second is LiveLesson®, an online tool, also provided by Connections Education, which allows students and teachers to interact through a virtual classroom.
Parents can use the portal to track their student’s progress, monitor performance, and communicate with teachers through secure message boards. Students use the same portal to measure their own progress, explore diverse educational resources, and learn about the extra-curricular activities available to them.
LiveLesson® serves as an online alternative to the brick-and-mortar classroom. The online classroom allows students to experience lectures remotely, view teachers’ instructions via a digital whiteboard, and answer questions posed to the class. Students can ask questions of their teachers and peers as they collaboratively explore new concepts and subject matter. Sessions on LiveLesson® can include an entire classroom, a small group, or even one student.
Data on student performance is also used to “dynamically group” students who need help with, or who excel in, certain subject areas. These groups are rearranged every 4-6 weeks. This classroom arrangement is vastly distinct from traditional public schools, where age is the primary determinant of student grouping. Nexus’ focus on data, however, ensures that similarly advanced students learn together, which is far more efficient.
Another thing that makes the Nexus approach to blended learning distinct from other schools is its broad offering of electives. In addition to the usual core offerings of language arts, math, science and social studies, Nexus provides access to a diverse slate of elective courses.
Unlike most American high schoolers, Nexus students can take courses in journalism, marketing, art history, sports management, up to six foreign languages (including sign language), marine science, psychology, and computer programming. The school also offers a full array of Advanced Placement and Honors courses for students who excel. Perhaps the most original element of Nexus’ blended learning model is Juilliard eLearning – an innovative partnership with the Juilliard School that equips students to learn and play music.
Nexus Principal, Jamie Brady, is a veteran educator who believes that blended learning is the way of the future for American education.
“I have watched education evolve over the past 17 years and I am amazed that some educators still believe that standing up in front of a classroom, writing on a chalk board, and lecturing to young children is impactful and beneficial,” Brady told a local newspaper last year. “We are educating our future leaders and we better make sure they are prepared to compete in a global economy,” she said.
In southeast Denver, Colorado, one young public charter school is using blended learning to serve at-risk elementary school children – and it is generating some impressive results.
Rocky Mountain Prep (RMP) is spearheaded by founder and CEO James Cryan, a 2007 graduate of Colby College in Waterville, Maine. After teaching for two years in a traditional public school through Teach for America (TFA), a program that places recent college graduates in challenging classrooms with at-risk students, Cryan got his MBA from Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver. In July of 2010, he decided to take the TFA model, add innovative technology-based instruction methods, and start a public charter school serving at-risk youths.
RMP opened for the 2012-2013 school year to students from pre-kindergarten to 1st grade. That year, the school’s enrollment totaled 131 students. The following school year, RMP expanded to 2nd grade and enrolled 289 students. The school’s expansion plans are ambitious: Cryan and the school’s supporters plan to add one grade level every year until 2016, when the school will serve pre-K through 5th grade.
Class is in session at RMP 5 days a week, from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM. RMP uses an extended school year, so kids attend from mid-August to late June, but vacations are a bit more frequent, with students taking a week off every eight weeks.
The Denver Public School system uses a novel approach to enroll students in public charter schools. The state provides an online application – DPS School Choice – for parents to review and select schools for which their children may apply. DPS then uses information from the application, such as top school choices, learning preferences and student characteristics, to place the student at a school within the system. In cases where more students apply than a school can accommodate, students are randomly assigned a lottery number.
Because it’s not a traditional public school, RMP can choose from a broader array of talented, energetic individuals to serve as educators. In the most recent school year, RMP operated with a staff of 34, including Cryan, plus 15 teachers and eight teaching fellows.
RMP teachers are highly qualified and are required to have at least a Bachelor’s Degree, but may or may not have a Colorado teaching license. This means that a college graduate who has a passion for teaching, but who has not majored in education or attained a teaching certificate, can find an opportunity to change lives. RMP capitalizes on those with an interest in education through its Teaching Fellows. The fellows work alongside teachers to serve as personal mentors for students. Paid with stipends, fellows are typically recent college graduates who are interested in the education field.
RMP’s teachers do not belong to a teachers’ union, but the teaching positions are highly sought after nonetheless. The school offers a competitive benefits package and a retirement plan comparable to those available at traditional public schools. According to Cryan, the school received more than 2,200 job applications last year from individuals seeking a teaching or teaching fellow position.
“What we found is people are very interested in working in a high performance environment,” he said. “We believe really deeply in the power of school culture. We work really intensely to create a culture of rigor and joy. Our kids are really happy coming to school, and personalized learning supports that.”
RMP predominately serves at-risk students. In the 2013-2014 school year, 83.7 percent of RMP students received free or reduced lunch – a key indicator of socio-economic status. Four out of five students were of racial or ethnic minorities and roughly one-third were English language learners. Considering that the students tend to come from poorer families and families that are struggling to overcome cultural and linguistic barriers, you might expect them to lag behind peer schools in terms of performance.
Not so, says Cryan.
“We had incredible results last year,” he said of RMP’s inaugural school year.
RMP students averaged about 1.5 years progress in reading growth and 1.7 years in math, he said, excelling beyond peers at similar Denver-area schools. He said RMP students went from 20 to 87 percent proficiency in reading.
“Our mission is to close the opportunity gap that exists in public education between low income students and their wealthier peers,” he said. “We provide every kid a learning experience that gives them the tools that they need to be successful.”
For RMP, those tools are the components of a blended learning model: teacher instruction, personalized mentorship, and self-directed learning via digital platforms.
Rocky Mountain Blended Learning
Like other blended learning schools, RMP uses a rotational model where a typical student’s day is divided between small group instruction with their peers, student-led learning sessions with specialized software, and one-on-one targeted help with teachers and/or teaching fellows in areas of weakness. Each classroom is equipped with a lead teacher, who delivers traditional subject matter instruction, and a teaching fellow, who serves as a mentor for individual students.
When students are not engaged in classroom instruction or one-on-one sessions with mentors, they are working independently on coursework delivered through innovative computer programs. The computer program replaces one-size-fits-all worksheets and offers each student a learning program customized to their needs and capabilities. Additionally, the blended learning model leverages young students’ familiarity with devices such as computers and tablets to provide instruction in an engaging and entertaining way.
For math, RMP uses ST Math, an interactive learning application from the MIND Research Institute. The “ST” stands for Spatial-Temporal, which reflects the programs method of teaching math through visuals rather than through text – a method that arose out of neuroscience research at the University of California. The program is also game-based, which adds a spirit of fun to keep children intrigued.
For literacy, RMP uses Reading A-Z, an online reading program used in more than 250,000 schools worldwide. The program can be used individually by students or for a teacher-led session involving the entire classroom.
In addition to the traditional core subjects of language arts and math, RMP currently offers the following extracurricular activities: dance, soccer club, hand bell choir, theater and Arabic language instruction.
Online learning comes with three major advantages over traditional lecture-based, homework intensive instruction.
First, the online applications RMP uses can automatically individualize instruction to every student’s level of understanding. For example, the computer program will deliver more challenging questions to a student who is highly proficient at fractions while a child who is struggling with that subject will face less difficult questions. This method ensures that students are not tasked with exercises that are above their level of understanding, yet it also guarantees that every student is challenged as much as possible. Regardless of ability level, every student is challenged in a way that fits their ability level, thus maximizing the productivity of online learning sessions.
Second, online learning provides teachers with instant, individualized progress reports for every student. Within minutes after students have completed an online work session, a teacher or teaching fellow can log into the backend of the program to assess student performance. The same performance metrics are available to parents, who can use the online platform to track their child’s progress in real time.
Educators can tell that Jennifer has mastered second grade reading material, but that Benjamin is still struggling. Armed with that information, they can push Jennifer into more advanced reading assignments while spending more time helping Benjamin overcome any obstacles he’s facing. Ideally, this kind of customized learning already happens in traditional public schools. Fortunately, with RMP’s blended learning model, it happens every day, with every student, without fail.
With these daily progress reports, online, blended learning serves to compliment traditional instruction. “Teachers know how their kids are doing based on assessments and they use that to plan instruction for kids in small groups or one-on-one,” said Cryan.
Third, RMP’s online learning platform offers two content-based advantages over traditional public school methods. First, because curriculum content is delivered online, the reading materials cost a fraction of what it takes to print books. And second, the online content allows reading content to be updated as current events unfold, or as scientific concepts are revised. Texts can also be custom fitted for state learning standards.
All of these advantages – customized learning, instant performance feedback, and cost-effective up-to-date content – are made possible by RMP’s leveraging of the blended learning model.
RMP is supported through a combination of public and private funding. Although the school’s goal is to run efficiently on its public funding, it has benefited enormously from charitable giving. These gifts, said Cryan, have allowed the school to expand and grow. Charitable support also helped the school overcome start-up costs associated with technology, which includes one personal computer or iPad for every two students.
In addition to state appropriations, the school receives donations from more than a dozen private foundations, including the Anschutz Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Broad Foundation, Buell Foundation, Louis Calder Foundation, and Walton Family Foundation.
As is the case with most charter schools, RMP has faced political criticism and pushback. According to Cryan, the biggest fight has been ensuring that, as a charter school, RMP has access to the same resources as traditional public schools.
“The district has some entrenched political habits that are challenging to break,” he said. “So, when schools like charter schools suggest a new paradigm it can be a real challenge.”