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SIMMONS: D.C. schools give blended learning a try in classrooms

- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 4, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Smithsonian Magazine recently published an article on blended learning, and when the Smithsonian talks, we all should listen.

Blended learning is a teaching method that has long been used in private schools and college classrooms, but only in recent years has it been trending in public K-12 classrooms.

The academic results for young people in public grade schools are still up in the air, but for now that's OK.

Indeed, that students who attend a public school in an impoverished section of the District are using computers on a daily basis proves school officials, principals and students are moving in the right direction.

Example No. 1: Stanton Elementary School, where 98 percent of youngsters are black, 99 percent receive free or reduced-price meals and 14 percent of the student body is considered special needs. The school is wedged between one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, Congress Heights, and one of its wealthier and most stable, Hillcrest Heights (which the mayor calls home).

A chronically underperforming school, Stanton was reconstituted in 2010. Today, third- through fifth-graders spend 45 minutes of learning time on computers and iPads working at their own pace on their math studies.

The online program, ST Math, "challenges each student based on his or her skill level," the magazine reported. "For example, one student could tackle multiplication tables, while someone in the next row completes double-digit addition problems. Some do all their work by typing and touch-screening their way through problems and solutions, while others swivel between scouring the screen and scribbling on scrap paper. Teachers rotate through the room, helping students when they stumble on a given problem."

Interestingly, Stanton's principal, Caroline John, and administrators weren't unaware of blended learning, but they ran across the term while searching for innovative ways to engage students in their core mission — teaching and learning.

In addition to Ms. John, Smithsonian quoted several education specialists about the pros and cons of blended learning, including how it empowers students and its effects on online learning versus brick-and-mortar schooling.

One is Michael Horn, a blended- learning specialist with the Clayton Christensen Institute, which released a 2012 white paper that cited four blended-learning categories: rotational, flex, self-blend and enriched virtual.

Like most other grade schools that offer blended learning programs, Stanton falls into the rotational category, offering traditional class work with online learning. When the third- and fifth-graders finish their online instruction, the computers move to another class.

Currently, the most common blended courses offer math and English/language arts, while "high schools are perhaps the most likely to operate a self-blend model, where a student takes one or two online courses — often Advanced Placement or credit recovery courses — to supplement their in-class education," the magazine said. (The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation offers blended learning grant money to secondary schools.)

The other two categories are the School of One math program in New York, a flex model tailored to individual students, and enriched virtual models, which call for students to periodically meet with a teacher or teacher's aide.

Whatever the model, it's clear that innovative online/classroom teaching and learning is trending — even here in the nation's capital, where school officials have been moving away from the wholesale move-in-lock-step models.

Last week, D.C. Chancellor Kaya Henderson said she is encouraging principals and the teaching corps to incorporate additional blended learning programs into the school system, like the one at Stanton Elementary and at nearby Hart Middle School. Eugene Dewitt Kinlow and I interviewed Ms. Henderson on WPFW-FM's "D.C. Politics Hour," and she said she is particularly interested in programs in North Carolina, where successful K-12 online schooling abounds.

As aging, half-empty school buildings continue to be shuttered across the country, Ms. Henderson's push toward innovation and technology is surely welcome — and on point.

Clearly, brick-and-mortar schooling isn't going to simply disappear anytime soon, but education advocates, colleges and the current teaching corps are going to have to think about the next generation of teaching model.

Students and their parents are already using computers, cellphones, smartphones, netbooks and e-readers as fifth appendages. Our public education systems must accelerate the slow pace of reform — including construction of a high-tech computer/technology lab at Stanton Elementary.

Blessedly, there are organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and CityBridge Foundation, which donated money to Stanton's efforts and several other tightly structured blended learning programs in the city.

"To be able to help a teacher serve a student at a first-grade level and a student at a fourth-grade level at the same time, that's what we're excited about," CityBridge Executive Director Mieka Wick told Smithsonian Magazine.

Hear, hear.

As I said: When the Smithsonian talks, we all should listen.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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