Blended school concept could change Indy education

By J.k. Wall

Associated Press

Published: Monday, June 4 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

INDIANAPOLIS — Blended learning is about to shake up public schools in Indianapolis.

Three organizations have been approved to open 19 charter schools here that combine online technology and face-to-face instruction. The strategy allows schools to save money by employing fewer teachers, yet also can produce impressive student results.

And because lower-cost blended schools need no ongoing philanthropic support, they can be replicated rapidly_about three times more quickly than charter schools in Indianapolis have been so far.

"We're finally seeing the long-awaited arrival of technology that actually transforms instruction," said David Dresslar, a former public school superintendent who is now director of the Center for Excellence in Leadership of Learning at the University of Indianapolis.

If the blended schools in Indianapolis, which hope to enroll nearly 11,000 students, are as successful as blended schools in Arizona and California have been, Dresslar added, that will force traditional public schools here to adopt the concept, too.

Blended learning, also called hybrid learning, sends students to a computer lab to learn basic skills in math and literature_such as multiplication tables or parts of speech. Teachers then can focus on higher-level concepts such as story problems or composition writing during face-to-face instruction.

The software programs used in blended learning send streams of data to teachers, who can see what concepts students are grasping and what they are struggling to learn. The result, blended-learning proponents say, is that teachers are able to customize instruction_even though the ratio of students to teachers is higher in blended schools.

"It does provide a wonderful customized education for kids," said Rick Ogston, head of Arizona-based Carpe Diem Schools, which switched to a blended model nearly a decade ago. At Carpe Diem's high school last year, 87 percent of students passed the state math test and 93 percent passed the state reading test.

In August, Carpe Diem will open its first of six schools in Indianapolis. Each Carpe Diem school aims to eventually enroll 273 students in grades six through 12. And each school will have only four certified teachers, with other non-teachers to oversee students during their computer lab periods.

The other two organizations green-lighted to bring blended learning to Indianapolis are Boston-based Phalen Leadership Academies and California-based Rocketship Education.

Phalen wants to open six schools in Indianapolis, enrolling a total of 5,400 students. The newly formed group is led by Earl Phalen, founder of the Summer Advantage program, which already operates in 15 school districts in Indiana.

Its charter schools will be a year-round version of the five-week Summer Advantage programs, which have shown an average academic gain among students of two months, compared with a typical summer learning loss of three months.

In addition to the six schools in Indianapolis, Phalen also plans to start five other schools around Indiana by 2024.

"Our schools are built so that they are sustainable on state dollars," said Phalen, whose budgets assume $8,000 in expenditures per student. Most charter schools previously have been making their budgets by "running a chicken dinner every year. It's just not sustainable and it's just not scalable."

Charter schools in Indiana receive about $7,000 per student in state support, although funding can be higher for low-income and special-needs students.

Rocketship wants to open eight schools in Indianapolis, eventually enrolling a total of 4,000 students. But since the for-profit company is also expanding right now in Milwaukee and likely other cities, too, its first school won't open here until 2015.

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