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Blended Learning Spotlight: Incubator School

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Nov 19, 2013

blu-logoThe Blended Learning Universe (BLU) is a robust catalog of blended-learning programs that grew out of our research for “The rise of K-12 blended learning: Profiles of emerging models.” What started with just 40 profiles from our white paper has grown to include more than 100 profiles and case studies detailing blended-learning initiatives from around the world. This is the first in a series of blog posts that will highlight some of the promising and exciting innovations the BLU is capturing.

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Although the Incubator School is less than three months old, its founder and lead teacher Sujata Bhatt already knows what language she wants her students to learn first—code.

Learning to code is all part of Bhatt’s vision to create a secondary school devoted to fostering entrepreneurship. The idea of starting a school focused on entrepreneurship first came to Bhatt when she was working as an education advisor for the startup Outthink, Inc., where she observed that the startup space was attracting younger and younger entrepreneurs. She was also working at the time as an elementary school teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District and noticed that her students were most excited and engaged by projects that asked them to run their own businesses. She understood not only that technology was a major part of children’s daily lives, but that in order for children to become successful entrepreneurs in today’s market, they would need to be well-versed in technology. She wanted to ensure that her students developed fluency in technology through their coursework, which is how she decided to use a blended-learning model for instruction.

As one of 15 pilot schools to open within the Los Angeles Unified School District in SY2013-14, the Incubator School opened its doors to its first class of 6th and 7th graders in August, with the help of a $100,000 grant from the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC). The school plans to add one grade level each year until it is a fully operational grade 6-12 school in SY2018-19. Unlike some schools, the Incubator School does not plan to expand by just duplicating parts of the model that are already working. Instead, it plans to do what Bhatt calls “incubating an open-source culture of innovation and collaboration” by continually iterating on its model through student and teacher feedback.

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The primary focus of the school’s instructional model is project-based learning, but teachers rely heavily on the Flex model of blended learning to supplement and integrate the student’s learning with the project-based portion of the curriculum. Each school day is broken into three periods, which are 2.5 hours each. During the first period of the day, students work at their own pace through online courses for math (MangaHigh, Ten Marks) and English language arts (Newsela, NoRedInk). Teachers use the student data from the online courses to identify specific areas where individual students are struggling and then provide intervention by pulling small groups of students from the computers for brief face-to-face instructional breakout sessions. Bhatt found that with online learning, students are more engaged in the content and enjoy working independently through their tasks.

During the second period of the day, students work individually or in small groups on one of three eight-week science or social science projects. Bhatt and the teachers have made integrating the projects with the online coursework a point of emphasis. For example, a project where students grow wheat is designed to teach students about genetics and plant reproduction. But growing the wheat involves knowledge of statistics and probability, so students’ online assignments and face-to-face interventions try to focus on those lessons. Seamlessly integrating the projects with the online coursework, however, is easier said than done. Although the school intends to make the curriculum as integrated as possible, that integration is still in the early stages of development.

The school places much of the learning in the students’ hands by design because Bhatt believes that both entrepreneurship and self-paced online learning require students to be able to self-motivate. This is where the third period of the day comes in. This period, also referred to as the “Incubator Period,” is essentially a more robust advisory period where teachers address the whole student rather than just the students’ academics. They use the time to develop skills, such as how to manage personal finances or become self-starters.

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The school’s opening has not been without difficulties, as last-minute relocations forced Bhatt to scramble to hire and train teachers and secure content providers before the school opened. The school is still dealing with the inability to integrate data from the online content providers, and the school information system and single sign-on and connectivity issues continue to plague the school’s ability to run smoothly. But in true startup fashion, Bhatt and her teachers are constantly receiving feedback from students, giving feedback to content providers, and then iterating based on that feedback with an eye on fine-tuning the model and the curriculum.

It is too early for student achievement data to provide any indication of whether the model is successful in fostering entrepreneurship and creating self-motivated students, but Bhatt is optimistic that she will replicate the success of Summit Public Schools, a California-based network of charter schools that inspired many aspects of the Incubator School’s project-based model. For more information about the Incubator School—or about more than 100 other blended-learning programs worldwide—check out the BLU.

Michael Lemaire