Blended Learning

California’s Aspire charter network gets a blended-learning boost from Silicon Schools Fund

A California-based charter school network has been an early but careful pioneer in blended learning, and now its leaders say they are ready to take it to the next level.

Aspire Public Schools announced last week that the network will expand its blended learning program to 15 of its 38 schools, with the help of an investment from the Silicon Schools Fund. The growth will allow Aspire’s blended learning program to reach 1,600 more students this school year in the Bay Area, Los Angeles and Central Valley in California. And the network will be able to test its teaching strategies in secondary schools for the first time.

In education, it can be tricky to grow. What works in one school sometimes has a different flavor – and not in a good way – when attempted elsewhere. This problem is especially vexing for programs that make use of education technology, which continues to evolve quickly. Other tech-heavy charter networks have stumbled. California-based Rocketship Education, for instance, has been criticized for moving too fast.

But an expansion can be a chance to find ways to improve – if the school’s leaders are willing to listen carefully as they bring more people on the team. Elise Darwish, Aspire’s chief academic officer, said its blended program has been using technology to create tailor-fit lessons for students.

“Every time we bring blended learning into a new school, we learn more about what works,” Darwish said in an interview last week. “We get more staff working on ideas that will make it even more innovative and even better.”

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Darwish said that one of the many lessons learned has been to create a special role – they call it a blended learning teaching assistant – for someone who is able to work quickly and under pressure to solve technical problems that will inevitably come up in the classroom. This person is really good at problem-solving, she said, and knows something about both technology and teaching.

The educators at Aspire started a blended learning pilot program in 2011, and it’s grown to be a popular part of the school’s approach to teaching and learning. The school has shared its methods with educators outside its own network. Earlier this year, for instance, the school published a handbook, Go Blended! A Handbook for Blending Technology in Schools.

The Silicon Schools Fund committed to give the network $475,000 over two years to support the growth of blended learning. And the charter network is investing about $200,000 of its own money into the secondary schools expansion. The money is to be used for equipment, training and software to fuel the program.

“Aspire has built a reputation for judiciously integrating technology, always working to ensure great student focus and engagement whether working with a teacher or on a computer,” Silicon Schools Fund CEO Brian Greenberg said in a statement. “Equally important, Aspire is documenting and sharing their learnings with others and benefitting schools across the country.”

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Nichole Dobo

Nichole Dobo writes about blended learning. Most of her 10-year career as a reporter has focused on education. She has also covered stories about government,… See Archive