This profile was adapted from the case study titled “Blended Learning in Practice: Case Studies from Leading Schools: Featuring FirstLine Schools,” by Brad Bernatek, Jeffrey Cohen, John Hanlon, and Matthew Wilka for the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, September 2012.
Note: The information in this profile represents SY2012-13 unless otherwise indicated.
FirstLine Schools is a Charter Management Organization (CMO) with a mission to create and inspire great open-admission public schools in New Orleans. With a focus on turnarounds, FirstLine Schools now operates a network of five schools. In the fall of 2007, FirstLine Schools (then called Middle School Advocates) opened Arthur Ashe Charter School (Arthur Ashe).
Recognizing the potential of blended learning to increase student achievement through enhancing personalization, FirstLine School’s CEO Jay Altman launched an effort to design and implement a Rotation blended-learning model in the fall of 2010. That April, the FirstLine team started piloting software with students at Arthur Ashe, and by the 2011-12 school year, students’ schedules were built around using online learning for English Language Arts (ELA) and Math.
Program model: Lab rotation
For English Language Arts and Math instruction, students rotation between their traditional classrooms and a computer lab, where they engage with several different online programs.
Blended-learning design and context
Today, all students at Arthur Ashe receive face-to-face instruction in traditional classrooms for all core subjects. For ELA and Math instruction, students rotate between their traditional classrooms and a computer lab, where they engage with several different online programs. Students in grades K-3 spend approximately 60 minutes per day in the lab; students in grades 4-8 spend up to 100 minutes per day in the lab. Students who require greater direct support work with specially chosen online programs and/or in small groups with teachers during lab time.
Within the segments of students’ days designated for ELA and Math in the computer lab, students cycle through whole group teaching, computer-based exercises and small group support for targeted remediation. Small group arrangements are determined by the results of weekly multiple choice assessments and can change from week to week. Teachers gather every Friday to analyze assessment data, consider students’ progress, adjust grouping assignments and develop strategies for improving performance.
The digital content programs used at Arthur Ashe are largely self-paced and include assessments to regulate students’ understanding and readiness to progress. Teachers use these tools to identify knowledge gaps among students and tailor support to the students’ ability levels. The online software can supplement understanding, allow advanced students to push ahead, and identify students that need additional help.
Arthur Ashe employs two lab coaches to oversee the two computer labs, filled with 40 to 60 students at any one time. These lab coaches track students’ performance, direct students to the appropriate programs and activities, manage the activity in the room and provide as-needed tutoring and program troubleshooting.
Arthur Ashe uses 117 desktop PCs in its two computer labs. There are also two to five computers in each classroom and laptop computers in a “Learning Support room,” where targeted instruction for students needing greater help takes place.
To create the two computer labs, an existing library and classroom were fitted for the necessary technology. This process included setting up wiring, building up a wireless network, increasing bandwidth, and adding access points. The school chose to use a cloud-based system, in order to streamline activity by allowing students to work on different programs at any device.
The high cost of using a 1:1 laptop model caused administrators to choose an alternative device model. At first, the school used rolling laptop carts to supply devices to students. The laptops were prone to damage and not reliable, given that they were used by multiple users everyday. Because Arthur Ashe had the space to build computer labs, administrators chose to create those labs and equip them with desktop computers. Administrators have found that desktops with wired keyboards and wired mouses are much more durable and reliable than mobile laptops. The school also chose to use wired Internet connections to prevent connectivity issues and also to reinforce the static location of the hardware.
Arthur Ashe leveraged eRate federal funding to save money on hardware and infrastructure.
To meet the varied needs of its students, Arthur Ashe decided to use many different online content providers, and administrators asked teachers to make decisions on which software to use for their specific students. Having surveyed the field of available programs, administrators provided teachers with several options for instructional software, and the teachers themselves decided which programs fit best with their teaching philosophy and the perceived needs of their students. This caused teachers to take ownership in the process of adding online programs and bolstered teacher buy-in to the blended-learning model. Teachers had a few months to decide on software programs, and the option to pilot these programs in a small number of classrooms. Arthur Ashe administrators acknowledge that this process of selecting instructional software is quite lengthy, but also claim it is very worthwhile in securing teacher buy-in, especially in a school turnaround situation.
There have been several changes made in software programs used at Arthur Ashe. Teachers and administrators have recognized that some programs do not have robust enough feedback loops and/or organizational dashboards and that some programs require too much teacher involvement. Students are switched to different programs based on needs.
Arthur Ashe used the already existing teaching staff to implement its blended-learning design. It also hired two lab coaches to oversee activity in the computer labs. Administrators at Arthur Ashe recognized that the job of a lab coach is very different from the job of a teacher and sought to hire individuals with coaching background and experience working with teams and driving motivation. Lab coaches do not need content knowledge, but must have the skills necessary to communicate high expectations and goals, push students to excel, keep students in line and on task, and deliver an occasional pep talk. Arthur Ashe administrators want the lab coaches to feel ownership over the lab space, and they deliberately define the role as not one of a babysitter but one of a powerful motivator.
Ongoing professional development
The School Director at Arthur Ashe meets with each teacher one-on-one each week. Arthur Ashe designates 120 minutes each Friday as professional development time, when teachers work on improving pedagogy and curriculum. A network support staff, which includes a Director of Blended Learning, a Blended Learning Project Manager, and others, provide professional development support.
In an effort to save money, Arthur Ashe initially used a webinar format to deliver professional development. Administrators did not find this method effective, and decided to invest money to have software program representatives come on site and work with teachers. These implementation representatives visit several times a year, and administrators have noticed that their presence gives teachers a forum to get the help they need but perhaps wouldn’t ask for without a representative visit.
Lab coaches engage in a week long “crash course” of training before beginning work and thereafter meet regularly with department heads for professional development.
Arthur Ashe invested $66,658 from grants (including federal eRate funding) upfront to implement its blended-learning program. The conversion to blended learning made it possible to employ seven fewer support staff, which saved the school $829 per pupil. On the cost side, the blended-learning model required cash outlays to hire lab staff and an IT intern and to purchase software licenses, computers and furniture. But bottom line, the savings outweigh the costs by $284 per pupil.
Arthur Ashe administrators made a conscious decision not to increase class sizes to save money. Because two classes of students can be in the computer lab at one time, the blended-learning model allows the school to serve more students per square foot.
Looking forward, the finance team at Arthur Ashe expects the school to hit sustainability, not showing an operating deficit and relying solely on public revenue, by year three of the blended-learning program implementation. It is expected that software license expenses will decrease as the school uses fewer programs and the cost of software declines. Additionally, a rise in student enrollment over time will allow the school to amortize its costs over more students, leading to lower costs per student.
Eighth graders at Arthur Ashe outperformed the state average in three out of four subjects (ELA, Math and Science), and had the highest Math scores of any open-admissions school in New Orleans. Fourth graders at Arthur Ashe also outperformed the state in ELA and Math. Overall, Arthur Ashe has seen a 9 percent growth in students performing at grade level or above on the LEAP assessment. Considering Arthur Ashe’s high percentage of special needs students (26 percent), this result is particularly notable.
Teacher surveys administered at Arthur Ashe yielded a clear positive response to the blended-learning program from teachers. Ninety-six percent of teachers responded that they would recommend the shift to blended learning to other schools.
Name: Chris Liang-Vergara
Title: Director of Instructional Technology for Personalized Learning at FirstLine Schools
Email: [email protected]