Highlander Charter School leads Rhode Island’s blended learning mission

By Andrew Wuebker | October 23, 2015

Within the walls of Highlander Charter School is a revolution that has spread like wildfire in schools across the country.

Blended learning, the personal and collaborative initiative that pairs classroom instruction with the integration of technology, is aiming for students to absorb more information and be more engaged in the classroom than ever. Blended learning is prompting teachers, administrators and school committees to give students more control over how and at what pace they learn.

Highlander Charter School, located in one of the poorest sections of Providence, is leading the way in Rhode Island. The 400-student school has made blended learning its number one priority for all of its students, which range from pre-k to 11th grade.  A twelfth grade will be added next year.

“Highlander decided to develop a blended learning model in order to better meet the individualized approach we take to teaching and learning,” said Head of School Rose Mary Grant. “The goal was simply to increase engagement and to give teachers tools to further individualize for students in their classrooms, as well as to expand offerings at the upper school.”

With blended learning at Highlander, students are able to engage with curriculum at their level and teachers are able to work with smaller groups for targeted instruction. The software in use allows for independent learning practices, while tracking progress for teachers.

Highlander’s success with blended learning came in fits and starts and the school frequently shares the challenges it faced with other school districts that are expanding the use of technology in classrooms.

Grant was uncertain whether teachers would be up to the task. And the technological changes produced problems in the early stages of the transition process.

“Teachers were hesitant at first, which is to be expected with any new initiative. They were concerned about training and their own skill level,” said Grant. “Administration really had to relook at how the funds would be re-assigned from materials like textbooks to technology. A development of a long-term technology plan that would meet the growing school’s needs was imperative.”

Although teachers were worried at first about this new approach, over time they came to believe that blended learning benefitted students in more ways than one.

Carrie Sorensen, a  first grade teacher at Highlander, credits Highlander for its willingness to let teachers do their work.

“Highlander is an incredibly receptive and flexible place in which teachers are given autonomy and respect,” said Sorensen. “As educators, we are encouraged to experiment, and to incorporate technology with responsibility and freedom.”

In Sorenen’s first grade classroom, her students have roughly 30 non-consecutive minutes per day of whole group instruction. Sorensen implements blended learning into her classroom with a variety of programs. She has her students use programming such as Lexia, RazKids and Dreambox that will increase their mathematics and literacy skills. Sorensen makes playlists for her students in every subject, using a program called Blendspace for lessons and assignments. Sorensen also uses the social media platform Instagram to connect her students to the outside world with photographs. Video chatting and virtual fieldtrips with her students also help to expand their communication and connection to the outside world.

“Students are almost universally interested and excited by the idea of accessing and sharing knowledge,” said Sorensen.

“These programs can be used to increase or decrease difficulty level for individual students, meeting them where they are,” said Grant.  “In science and social studies, there are programs that allow for teachers to assign readings on the same subject matter at different levels so a student reading two or three years below his or her peers is still reading the same material about the subject matter, but the passage is written at his or her reading level. The student learns the material without the barrier of the difficult reading.”

Grant says that blended learning has caught on nationally because of the promise it holds to personalize instruction for every student, going as fast or slow as they need to master material, and to better prepare students for the global workforce.

“There is no one definition for blended learning and it is critical that there is an understanding that blended means just that. It isn’t all virtual. It isn’t just reading your book on a Kindle or an electronic textbook,” said Grant. “It is combining a variety of tools and strategies to make the teacher more effective in reaching the varying needs of the students in his or her classroom.”

Sorensen agreed that it’s a combination of tools and teacher initiative that makes blended learning so hotly discussed across the nation.

“Blended learning offers the very best of teacher practice with the best of online learning and collaboration.  It can help personalize education so that teachers are no longer teaching toward the middle, but rather encouraging all students not just to learn the material, but also to learn how they learn.  It’s the future,” said Sorensen.

As the blended learning process continues to grow and weave its way into education at Highlander, Grant says the progress has been promising.

“Blended learning has definitely increased engagement, focus and understanding for students and better efficiency for teachers,” said Grant. “It has certainly met our goals of increasing engagement with subject matter, differentiating for individual students above and below the mid-line, and expanding offerings for our middle and high school students.”

Grant believes that if children are given the chance to succeed with their education and is done correctly, it can certainly bring them lifelong success.

“In order for blended learning to be successful, it needs to be adapted to the culture of the school. There is no one size fits all model,” said Grant. “Teachers need to be trained and held accountable, administrators have to invest both financially and philosophically and a coordinator needs to ensure that high quality application is happening.”FullSizeRender

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