Last month, we introduced readers to KIPP Empower Academy, a blended elementary school program achieving outstanding results in Los Angeles, CA. Today, we have to honor of sharing an exclusive, in-depth interview with KEA founder Mike Kerr. To learn more about KEA, visit www.kippla.org/empower.
Scroll down for answers to the following questions:
My desire to open KIPP Empower Academy, a college-preparatory elementary school in South Los Angeles, stems from my own experiences with educational inequity while growing up in a rural, working-class town in New Jersey. As a child, I was aware that the people in my hometown, including myself, were quite different from the wealthier people whom I saw on television. I became keenly aware of the poverty that existed around me as well as the low expectations that my peers had for their future career options. To me though, there had to be a way out—and I thought education was it.
As a child, I dreamed of attending an elite college. Unfortunately, that dream was shattered during the summer of 1994, when I attended the New Jersey Governor’s School of Public Issues, a summer-long program designed to prepare the state’s top high school students for lives of public service. Although I should have been proud to take part in such an amazing pre-college experience, I instead felt ashamed. As I interacted with wealthier students who attended private high schools or high performing public schools, I came to see that the quality of education they received far surpassed the one that I had at my public school. Furthermore, after talking through my frustrations with other Governor Scholars who felt the way I did, I realized just how vast and pervasive educational inequity is across the United States.
Years later, as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland considering what to do upon graduation, it became evident that I should channel the negative emotions that I felt from my Governor’s School experience into positive energy for change. As a result, I applied for Teach for America and was placed at Public School 192 in Harlem where I taught first, second, and third grade before applying to the School Leadership program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
I was motivated to become the founding principal of a charter school because no child should have to go through what I did simply to make up for the education that he or she did not receive as a child. Therefore, after graduating from Harvard, I founded a charter elementary school that would lay such a solid foundation in education that all of our students would feel empowered to attend any elite college, and that would wipe out the insidious achievement gap. With a team of outstanding educators and the commitment of some hardworking students and their families, we did just that. At AFCHES, we not only bridged the achievement gap—we reversed it. After serving five years as the founding principal of AFCHES, I decided to move away from the cold, dreary winters of the Northeast to the warm environs of Los Angeles, CA, and again create another high-performing charter school.
Our mission is to empower our students to be strong in mind, body, and spirit so that they will thrive in middle school, high school, college, and the competitive world. “Strong in mind” conveys the importance of academic skills (cognitive development); “strong in body” refers to personal habits (physical development); and “strong in spirit” references the character traits we strive to foster (socio-emotional and psychological development). By cultivating all aspects of their development, we aim to prepare our students not just for middle school but also for the variety of challenges they may face in high school, college, and in their careers.
Each of KEA’s classrooms serves 28 to 30 students. Each classroom is equipped with 15 computers. KEA’s instructional model centers on providing teacher-led, small-group instruction for all students in the four core areas of reading, writing, math and science. During this teacher-led instruction, group size is under 14 students. While on the computers, students use digital content that is individualized, can be paced for learning ability, and have strong integrated assessments for progress monitoring, such as iStation and Dreambox.
In October 2009, as I was preparing to found KIPP Empower Academy through the KIPP Foundation’s Fisher Fellowship program, I learned that California’s Class-Size Reduction funding had been discontinued for new and expanding charter schools. Consequently, KEA would lose $107,100 per grade level in expected public revenue in its first year and more than $400,000 by its fourth year. Furthermore, in reaction to the state’s economic crisis and despite the fact that California’s per-pupil expenditures were already among the lowest in the nation, even deeper cuts were made to the state’s education budget. As a result, KEA faced a loss of roughly $200,000 in expected revenue for its first year of operation.
As I considered the possibility of adopting a blended learning model, my primary concern was preserving the individualized, small-group instructional approach for KEA, a pedagogical approach that utilizes a two-teacher per classroom model so that students could receive differentiated instruction in the core content areas with a low student-teacher ratio. I had successfully implemented such a model in my previous administrative role in New York City largely because my school received over $13,000 in per-pupil public funding and could actually afford two teachers per classroom. As a result of the strong student achievement results my school had achieved—95 percent of third graders and 99 percent of fourth graders scored proficient on New York state exams—and my strong views against the antiquated, yet widely used whole-class instructional methodology, I wanted to pursue a similar approach for KEA. After considerable reflection, I concluded that a rotational, blended learning approach could provide the best of both worlds—KEA would be able to overcome deep funding cuts while preserving the small-group, individualized instructional model. Now, however, instead of exclusively utilizing two teachers to supply small-group instruction, computers would play a beneficial supplementary role as well.
In the KEA kindergarten model, each of the four classrooms has a lead teacher. Additionally, there are two intervention teachers that are each split between two of the four classrooms. There are also two instructional assistants that are shared between two classrooms—they switch classrooms throughout the day with the intervention teachers. Intervention teachers “push in” to the classrooms during math and reading. Meanwhile, instructional assistants “push in” during writing and nap time (in the afternoon). The instructional assistants work with small groups of students, assist with learning centers during writing, and perform clerical duties during nap time and at other times throughout the school day. This intervention teacher-instructional assistant rotation allows for two teachers to be in the room during the all-important reading and math blocks. It also allows the classrooms to have two adults in the room for most of the day. Certainly, juggling 28 students can be a great deal of work, but having two adults in the room even with such a limited budget is extremely helpful.
By having personnel push into the classrooms in this fashion, KEA is able to ensure a 14:1 student to teacher ratio or better. During math, the intervention and lead teacher can work with two small, fluid, and homogenous groups of students for 45 minutes a day. Students are grouped as such based on performance data. If teachers need to work with even smaller groups, they can have a few students either work in learning centers geared towards their needs or further their skills by utilizing Dreambox’s online math curriculum that has been sequenced to closely match KEA’s math curriculum.
During writing, the lead teacher works for 30 minutes with one group of 14 students while the instructional assistant tends to the other students as they progress through their Word Work centers, spelling exercises, or other writing-related lessons. After 30 minutes, the students switch. Again, this allows the teacher to provide individualized instruction to a small group of just 14 students. With groups of this size, the teacher can more easily differentiate learning and provide instruction within a child’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s term for the teaching “sweet spot” where a student is taught material just beyond what they can do on their own. Instruction delivered to a student’s ZPD facilitates learning new material much faster than if a teacher instructs using the traditional shoot-for-the-middle approach to teaching an entire class of students at once.
For reading, KEA divides the 28 students even further into three fluid reading groups. This is done so that teachers can more appropriately zero in on a student’s ZPD during literacy instruction. Instead of the traditional model where one lesson is taught towards the middle group, which would not be challenging enough for the higher-performing students and far too advanced for lower-performing students, each group can receive a lesson tailored to its unique learning needs. The group sizes are pre-determined by how students perform on STEP literacy assessments, KEA’s literacy interim assessments. The teachers and administrators at KEA consistently evaluate the data to see how many students should be in the high, middle, or low reading groups. During the year, by receiving instruction within their ZPD, students can accelerate at a faster pace because they are receiving instruction tailored to their needs. Because KEA constantly assesses its scholars—informal assessments are administered bi-weekly and the STEP literacy interim assessments are administered five times a year—students may switch groups as often as their learning needs fluctuate.
Within this three-group reading model, at any given time, one group is with a teacher for a 30-minute phonics/fluency lesson, one group is with another teacher for a 30-minute comprehension/vocabulary block, and the last group is using the adaptive technology of the iStation computer program. Then, the students rotate from one block to the next until everyone has completed all three blocks. As with the small-group instructional model geared towards instructing students within their ZPD, iStation consistently adapts to the user. If a student struggles with their decoding skills, iStation will cycle back to reteach the lesson. Likewise, as is the case with our teaching model, if a student excels, he or she can accelerate ahead so that the challenging content matches his or her ZPD.
During science, which will always be a daily, full-year subject at KEA, the lead teacher is alone in the classroom in order to allow enough prep time to the instructional assistants and the intervention teachers. To make this work, half of the students are on the computers while the other half are with the teacher for 25 minutes of hands-on, inquiry-based instruction. And then, once more, the students rotate. Again, through this rotational model, students continue to receive instruction in groups of 14 or smaller.
KEA’s academic achievement results from the first year are extremely promising. At the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year 36% of the KEA kindergartners were reading at a proficient or advanced level as measured by the STEP literacy assessment. By the end of the year, 96% were proficient or advanced on the STEP. According to the nationally norm reference MAP test, 96% of student in both Reading and Math are performing at or above the national average.
Before constructing our model, we considered what would be an appropriate length of time that our students would be on the computer each day. We felt that 2 rotations of 30 minutes each would allow our students enough time to work on their reading and math skills, boost their 21st century skills and boost their computer literacy, bridging the digital divide. However, we realize that young children need to be actively engaged with their learning, which is why we balance these two computer rotations with 90 minutes a week of foreign language, 90 minutes a week of physical education/dance, an hour a week of art, and two blocks a day of recess. Furthermore, our math and science programs afford our students the opportunity to engage in hands on, active learning. Without a balanced approach, the needs of the whole child could potentially not be met. As we took this into consideration while crafting the model, the result was an instructional model that meets the needs of the whole child.
We also chose to keep the computers in the classroom to preserve an “Elementary classroom feel” for our students. We did not want our students to be sent to a computer lab; rather, we wanted to best utilize the computers in the classroom, which will pay dividends down the road when our students learn typing and research skills. Also, keeping the computers in the classroom eliminates the need for having an extra classroom for a lab, or an extra lab attendant.
The biggest advantage of a blended model is that it can preserve the vital small-group instruction needed to give students differentiated, individualized attention, even when dramatically increasing class sizes.
Most likely the increased class sizes required by the cessation of Class Size Reduction funding would have led to a higher student-teacher ratio and less small-group and individualized instruction.
Roughly 10% of entering KIPP Empower kindergarteners have had access to a computer. Within two weeks, roughly 80% of those same students are able to log on and off the computer without any adult assistance. At KIPP Empower we believe that all of our students can accomplish anything in their academic lives, be it on or off the computer. We have never experienced our students not being able to meet our high expectations for them.
In order to share about our experience with blended learning at KEA, we have developed a suite of informational resources for educators and others curious about implementing blended learning at the elementary level. Included is a case study on our first year of operation, which details the structure of blended learning at KEA, our staffing model, schedule, lessons learned, and frequently asked questions. I would advise anyone interested in replicating our model to start there!
Additionally, it takes more than just computers to make a blended learning model work. In the KEA example, our talented teachers and staff were hired not only for their commitment, leadership, and management capacity, but also for their ability to be flexible and adept at following a meticulously structured schedule that requires a great deal of movement. The teachers and staff received professional development training to follow the rotational schedule to precision. They also need to manage a classroom well in order to facilitate regular, smooth transitions. Furthermore, the teachers must be trained in how to interpret and use student achievement data, especially that which the various computer programs generate.
Schools that adopt a blended learning model must also assign a project manager who will be the point person for vendor management, troubleshooting computer issues, and keeping abreast of any teacher concerns. Ultimately, someone must take ownership over the implementation of the model so that if issues arise such as facilities constraints or bandwidth challenges, someone is responsible for ensuring a speedy resolution.
Allowing for significant implementation lead-time and setting realistic expectations in a school’s first year of implementation are also important. With potential facility-related issues, bandwidth concerns, or hardware challenges, having lead-time allows a school enough of a buffer to remedy these challenges in order to mitigate their effects on student learning when school starts. Additionally, if issues arise, being able to assign or hire someone who can address IT challenges onsite is also valuable. KEA was fortunate to have room in its budget to hire an instructional assistant for technology who could prevent many of the aforementioned challenges from overwhelming school administration.
In sum, I would make the following recommendations to anyone interested in implementing a model similar to ours:
- Centralize project management
- Anticipate bandwidth / other facilities related issues
- Allow significant implementation lead-time
- Set realistic expectations (e.g. around data usability)
- Prepare for upfront costs associated with implementation
- Prepare for unanticipated staffing needs
- Hire flexible teachers with excellent classroom management and who are bought into the need for personalized learning