Blended Learning in Challenging Budgetary Times
Blended learning and other integrated instructional technology practices offer a promising way to improve student achievement. Computer-assisted learning allows students to practice foundational math and reading skills, accelerating their learning to higher levels. Similarly, rigorous web-based iPad applications aligned with state standards allow students to learn in an engaging, innovative way, while also building their 21st century skills.
For schools that operate in challenging budgetary situations, blended learning also offers a more sustainable way to offer differentiated small-group instruction even in a classroom of 28-30 students. At KIPP Empower Academy (KEA), our elementary school in South Los Angeles, results are proving that with the right educators in the classroom, innovative technology practices can be strategically used to increase student achievement and significantly reduce costs.
KEA is operated by KIPP LA Schools and is part of the national Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) network of 125 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia. KEA currently serves approximately 330 students in grades K-2, 100% of whom are African American or Latino, and 91% qualify for free and reduced price lunch.
In 2010, KEA implemented its blended learning model in response to dramatic cuts in funding from the state of California. Founding Principal Mike Kerr originally planned for KEA to have five classrooms of 20 students each in its first year of operation. But in the fall before KEA opened, the California legislature cut class-size reduction funding for new schools. Thus, KEA lost a key source of expected revenue (roughly $112,000 in school year 2010-11). At full capacity (K-4), this source of funding would have amounted to over $400,000 annually.
After deciding to open with four classrooms of 28-30 students each, Mr. Kerr determined that embedding 15 laptops in each classroom would enable teachers to provide small-group instruction at a 14:1 student-to-teacher ratio or better even while expanding class sizes. As a result, Mr. Kerr has driven the implementation and growth of KEA’s unique blended learning model. By adding technology in this way, KEA has shown that a school can run a more efficient model while improving student achievement outcomes.
KEA currently employs a cutting-edge blended learning rotational model, providing small-group instruction for all students in the four core areas of reading, writing, math, and science. KEA’s school day is divided into subject blocks during which students divide into three small groups by skill level and rotate between computer-assisted learning stations, teacher-led instruction, and independent work.
During small-group instruction, students receive personalized and targeted support in a core subject area from highly trained teachers. At the 15 computer stations in each classroom, students work independently on adaptive software programs that reinforce core academic skills, allow students to practice new competencies, and propel them to achieve at higher levels. Finally, students working independently are able to practice reading and math skills on a variety of web-based iPad applications or complete reading, writing, or math assignments. This innovative instructional model allows KEA to use technology in a meaningful, productive way.
Thanks to our generous supporters, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as Mr. Kerr’s prudent financial decision-making, KEA is well on the path towards sustainability. Based on 2012-13 California public funding levels, we predict that KEA’s innovative blended learning model will operate exclusively with public funds by the time it reaches full capacity in 2014-15. While this is promising, KEA still faces ongoing challenges, particularly with regard to selecting adaptive software programs that are both rigorous and age-appropriate for its older students who have higher-level learning needs.
Ultimately, blended learning has made it possible for KIPP Empower to provide targeted small-group instruction during an incredibly austere state budget climate. As KEA continues to expand and achieve at high levels, we anticipate that its blended learning model will prove to be transformative for our students and community.