There’s something you notice when you step inside GEM Prep classrooms: Even though they’re full of tiny kindergartners and first graders, the rooms are mostly quiet. Look closely and you’ll see why — each student has a small computer and a colorful headset and is completely absorbed in matching shapes or solving puzzles.
For these digital natives, this classroom is the norm. But for older generations, it’s a pioneering method called blended learning.
GEM Prep, located in Pocatello, is the first foray into blended learning for the Idaho Distance Education Academy, or I-DEA. I-DEA is a public, online charter school founded in 2004 by Whitepine Joint School District #288 in Deary. It serves K-12 students throughout Idaho, with brick-and-mortar resource centers in Boise, Post Falls and Pocatello.
I-DEA has long been a trailblazer of digital learning methods, but for several years its students did not seem to be performing at high standards. That changed in 2012, when I-DEA received its first five-star rating from the Idaho State Department of Education; it has been a high performer ever since. Although the school enrolls more than 700 students statewide, I-DEA Director Jason Bransford wants to bring I-DEA’s best practices to a broader audience.
“We’ve always had this one problem,” Bransford says. “Only 40 percent of Idaho families can take advantage of I-DEA. In order to have your kid at home all day, every day, you have to have an adult at home all day, every day; someone who is in the room and working with the student as necessary.”
That need puts I-DEA out of reach for most of Idaho’s working families, Bransford says.
“We’d been brainstorming for years,” Bransford says. “What do we do for that other 60 percent of Idaho families who can’t utilize I-DEA? We’d been looking at some of the highest-performing schools in the nation, and we kept hearing they were using this approach called ‘blended learning.’ Working in the online world, we already understood what online looked like.”
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Bransford and his team, backed by grant support from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, began researching blended learning schools in Southern California. They studied everything: How schools trained students to move from in-person instruction to online learning and back again. How they selected an online curriculum. How they used level groups, which divide students by ability level so instructors can get a snapshot of how, and how quickly, students are learning. And, importantly for I-DEA, how the schools practiced accountability.
“The schools said, ‘We’re so forward with parents and students and teachers before we ever start that everybody knows we’re about growth,’ ” Bransford says. “You’re going to get students at all different levels, regardless of what you do as a school. So you might as well be about how much growth they show when you’re with them.”
There is no single, standardized model for blended learning; as technology has changed, so has blended learning. At its most basic level, blended learning is about customizing the learning experience for every student, and this is made possible by teachers and students using technology to target learning. Some blended learning schools look very much like traditional schools, but students employ technology throughout the day in the form of mobile devices or other digital tools. Other models resemble I-DEA and include mostly online learning supplemented by face-to-face support from certified teachers and teacher aides.
Early in 2014, I-DEA decided to move forward with its GEM Prep pilot program.
“We decided the best way to learn was to just do it,” Bransford says. “On one hand, it’s a separate school. On the other hand, it’s an extension of what we’ve been doing for years in online learning. It is under the same charter.”
The pieces needed to open the school fell into place quickly. A building that once housed a private school went on the market; Bransford hired new teachers and purchased new technology; students began enrolling. The school opened Sept. 2, 2014, to about 40 kindergarten and first-grade students.
One of those students is first-grader Isabella Roper. Her mother, Bethany, has been thrilled with GEM Prep. Isabella is one of the youngest students in her class, and Bethany Roper has been concerned about her ability to keep up. Isabella went to a traditional kindergarten last year.
“I was in her classroom a lot in kindergarten, and I feel that the kids who really needed help often weren’t noticed,” she says. “With computer programs, they’re always noticed because the teachers know what they’re doing and the students get that feedback.”
Meeting students where they are
Feedback is a crucial part of I-DEA’s success, and it’s one of the key differences between a traditional model and an online or blended learning model, Bransford says. It gives teachers the opportunity to capture snapshots of their students at any time and make adjustments to how learning opportunities are presented to each student.
“If you have a student in first grade who is struggling with spatial reasoning and math, you may know that from the data you get, but what do you do with that information?” Bransford says. “We try to remediate the situation and catch the student up to the level they need to be at so there aren’t holes in their learning.”
Part of the need to teach students at their current level and push for growth is driven by the unique needs of I-DEA students.
Instructor Danette Thompson, who teaches social studies, history, American government and economics, says students run the gamut.
“I always thought there would be a stereotypical virtual student, but they’re all very different,” she says.
Bransford says I-DEA, like many online schools, has a high turnover rate. Some parents don’t realize how involved they must be to make an online-only model work for their child, he says. Other students, like I-DEA eighth grader Michael Nilsson, have medical issues that keep them out of school. Michael’s dad, Brian, says I-DEA offered the best option for his son.
“My wife looked at a lot of different schools,” Brian Nilsson says. “But because this school is here and there’s a building (the resource center), we figured it would make more sense because there would be a point of contact. That’s helped a lot.”
The road to five stars
I-DEA didn’t always appear to be meeting the needs of students like Michael Nilsson. When Idaho measured school progress through the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) method mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act, I-DEA failed to meet standards. It didn’t meet AYP standards in 2005-2006, 2006-2007 or 2009-2010.
Bransford wasn’t yet director during those years; he worked at the I-DEA support center in Pocatello. Those were frustrating times, he says.
“It was a bit depressing,” he says. “In one way, we knew we were making progress by that third year. But at the same time, it’s hard to show that progress when you’re doing just a snapshot in time.”
When Idaho adopted its current assessment method, the Idaho Five-Star Rating System for all public schools and school districts, I-DEA received five stars. It has received a second five-star nod since then.
“We have been really excited to celebrate this idea of being a five-star school,” Bransford says. “We felt like it validated this concept that online learning can be every bit as deep, every bit as powerful — and maybe even more so than a traditional classroom.”
I-DEA was an early and enthusiastic adopter of the recent Common Core standards. “We found the standards so much more rich and deep than the previous Idaho standards that to get there was going to be more than a one-year proposition,” he says.
I-DEA teachers read every word of the Common Core standards, which Bransford calls a “grueling exercise,” as part of a full year of prep work before I-DEA’s early adoption. Thompson says the standards have made a difference in the classroom.
“There are higher expectations,” she says. “Our classes are very aligned to the Common Core standards.”
As I-DEA continues to prove its success, Bransford has additional plans to expand. I-DEA celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2014 by redesigning its logo, website and course management system. It used part of the money from a 2013 Idaho State Department of Education Tech Pilot grant to institute a digital library so students may check out digital books, ebooks and audiobooks. There is room to grow at GEM Prep, and eventually Bransford would like to open a blended learning school in the Treasure Valley.
Bethany Roper hopes her other four children will eventually take advantage of I-DEA and GEM Prep. Children today will enter a workforce in which virtual meetings and online communication are the norm, she says, and online learning helps students prepare for the real world. She says she can already see Isabella becoming more comfortable with technology.
“That’s amazing,” she says. “I think it’s going to give her a big edge.”
This is the fifth in a six-part series featuring Idaho charter schools. The first was about Boise’s Anser Charter followed by features on White Pine, Syringa Mountain in Hailey and Heritage Charter. This series is being provided by the Idaho New School Trust, which is funded by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation.
Disclaimer: Idaho Education News is funded by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation.