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Learning Labs 101

Inside Rocketship, one of the best-known blended learning initiatives in the country.

The Learning Lab at Los Sueños Academy, in downtown San Jose, is not unlike the computer labs you'd find at many elementary schools-it's just much bigger. Tightly packed computer cubicles, 100 in all, form long rows along the 2,000-square-foot open-plan room.

The size of the lab reflects the outsize ambitions of Rocketship Education, the Palo Alto-based nonprofit organization that runs Los Sueños and four other charter schools in San Jose. In fact, the lab is the financial and academic key to Rocketship's ambitious mission. Cofounder John Danner aims to expand rapidly by using fewer teachers and paying them better-all while transforming how they teach.

The 100 minutes a day that Los Sueños students spend in the Learning Lab supplement the five hours of classroom instruction required by California law. But the time spent in the Learning Lab also replaces one out of four teachers per grade in every Rocketship school. That adds up to about five fewer teachers per school, at an average savings of $100,000 per teacher (including the cost of benefits), or $500,000. Rocketship uses that money to pay for the aides in the Learning Lab, two additional administrators at each school-and 20 percent higher pay for teachers.

Rocketship plans to open an additional 25 charter elementary schools in San Jose and surrounding Santa Clara County within the next five years. It has received approval from Milwaukee to open a cluster of eight elementary charters for its first national expansion. New Orleans, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., are among other major urban districts wooing Rocketship. If Rocketship's model proves viable, the scale and speed of its growth will set a new standard for the charter school world.

Inside the Lab
At any time of the school day, the Learning Lab at Los Sueños is at least three-quarters full. The students wear headsets and their eyes are on the monitors. The window shades are drawn. Construction paper in green and purple (the school colors) decorates the walls of every station.

After shaking hands with a learning specialist as they enter the room, the young "Rocketeers" go straight to their stations and log on. Except for some antsy kindergartners and first graders, students stay more or less focused on their monitors. The few who dawdle or pester a neighbor get a reminder-or if they persist, a red written warning. There are purple slips, too, for exhibiting Rocketship core values: persistence, responsibility, empathy, and respect. The lab is overseen by five aides. Typically, the kids spend 60 minutes in front of a computer, splitting the time between math and reading.

In an area carved out in the center of the room, classroom aide Katya Silva tutors five fourth graders who were identified as below basic in reading. Today, they are reading "Mrs. Hen's Plan," a two-page story about a hen's efforts to hide her egg from a farmer. The day's goal is to focus on words related to cause and effect. After students take turns reading aloud, some haltingly, they underline clue words-as, so, because-that can help them decipher meaning.

A mother of two children at Los Sueños, Silva was an active volunteer before she was hired as a Learning Lab specialist at about $13 per hour. Some of the specialists are new college grads exploring teaching as a career, though neither a B.A. nor certification is a prerequisite.

The scripted lesson plans that Silva uses-four per day, 16 per week-are written at Rocketship's home office in Palo Alto for each group's selected intervention. The students are chosen based on the results of unit tests or their reading levels, and in consultation with their classroom teachers. Silva and the other aides work under the assistant principal, who sets group goals (for example, giving students three positive expressions of feedback every five minutes) and meets individually with them weekly.

The mechanics of teaching basic skills in reading and math are difficult to master, especially for new teachers. Rocketship officials say they can be handled better, and more consistently, through the Learning Lab, even without certified staff in the room.

Rocketship isn't alone in using paraprofessionals, and their role in blended learning will likely increase, says Michael Horn, executive director of education for Innosight Institute, a California-based think tank. Paraprofessionals can be an integral element of an effective blended-learning program, Horn says, but it's important that they're well versed in the software programs their schools use.

Quest for Adaptable Programs
On this particular December day, soft-spoken Arrianna Cardenas, like other second graders, warms up for the first 10 minutes by doing simple addition and subtraction drills on Equatia, and then turns to word problems on a different program, TenMarks.

Unlike others working with blended learning, Rocketship hasn't committed to any single software package, says Charlie Buffalino, the schools' online specialist. Los Sueños uses an assortment of seven programs, four for math and three for reading, including Rosetta Stone for its least-proficient English learners. Of the math programs, says Buffalino, TenMarks stands out for correlating its content to match Rocketship's detailed standards and sequence of instruction.

That alignment will be essential as Rocketship pursues the next step in blended learning: integrating what students do in the Learning Lab with what they learn in class-and giving classroom teachers a role in determining online content for their students.

Automation will be critical: Students will be tested in the Learning Lab on units they're learning in class. Then the results will be analyzed by Rocketship's Individualized Scheduling Engine, a software integration and reporting system that Rocketship is developing with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It will diagnose each student's weaknesses and choose appropriate content from among the various software options in the lab.

The integration work is "moving rapidly in this direction with all of our software developers," says Buffalino, and a demonstration is planned by the end of the school year. Currently, aides at Los Sueños have little direct contact with classroom teachers, who are just beginning to receive-and pay attention to-reports on students' lab work.   

A Promising Start
Rocketship's blended-learning model, which Danner calls "charter school 2.0," is still a work in progress. Two of Rocketship's five schools just opened in August. Eighty percent of the 1,500 students in those schools are English learners, and 90 percent are low income. Initial results from the first three schools (Los Sueños, which opened in 2010, is the youngest of these) are promising. All three ranked among the top 10 on the state's Academic Performance Index for schools serving low-income students in Santa Clara County.

An independent evaluation seeking to isolate the impact of the Learning Lab found that K-1 students using the program DreamBox at all Rocketship schools for an extra hour a day of math instruction over 16 weeks made a 20 percent gain on the Northwest Evaluation Association math test, compared with students who received traditional classroom math instruction without extra help. A more detailed study is under way.

Los Sueños principal Drew Sarratore is confident the Learning Lab is working. He points to feedback from his teachers, who say students' basic skills in math and reading are improving without their having to devote more time to them in the classroom. Some students are excelling beyond grade level, while tutoring enables others to catch up. "All of our kids are moving, and this is a big part of our day," he says.

Preparing for Blast-Off
Rocketship has committed to raising the average student test score at each of its schools to proficiency-or an 875 on the state's Academic Performance Index-within three years of a school's opening, a daunting goal in California. The Santa Clara County School Board says it will hold Rocketship to that goal as a condition for opening two dozen new schools in the district.

Its schools operate with the same level of public funding per student as district schools (though it supplements that with grants to run its national office and develop software). While cuts have forced most districts in California to eliminate all administrators but the principal in elementary schools, Rocketship retains an assistant principal and an academic dean, whose exclusive job is teacher training.

Their work is critical. Rocketship recruits heavily from Teach for America, and two-thirds of its faculty are first- or second-year teachers (seven out of 15 at Los Sueños). Such intensive mentoring, rarely found in cash-strapped California, should quicken the learning curve for a young teaching corps. It better-three years isn't a lot of time for teachers, or for students, to become proficient.

In case anyone at Los Sueños should forget the importance of that goal, the number 875 is posted in 2-foot-tall green-and-purple letters on a wall in the hallway. Students see it every time they enter and leave the lab.

Choose Your Blend*
In 2010, more than 4 million K-12 students participated in some sort of online learning (up from 45,000 in 2000). An Innosight Institute survey of schools that have adopted blended learning was able to identify six basic models.

  1. Face-to-Face: Most material is taught in the traditional manner. The teacher uses online learning as a supplement or remediation.
  2. Flex: This is online learning but in a school setting. Teachers provide support as needed, generally through tutoring, either one-on-one or in small groups.
  3. Self-Blend: Students supplement traditional school by taking online classes from home. This model is used mostly to take AP and foreign language courses.
  4. Rotation: In this model, used in Rocketship schools, students spend a scheduled portion of their day learning online. Essentially, they rotate from classroom to online computer lab and back.
  5. Online Lab: Courses are conducted entirely online, including interaction with the teacher, but students do coursework in school (rather than at home). 
  6. Online Driver: Schooling is online: Students take classes and work with teachers remotely.
*Source: Heather Staker et al., The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning, Innosight Institute,

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