Education Nation

Education Nation: In Arizona desert, a charter school competes

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Dean of students Chet Crain delivering his ritual morning welcome and message to the students of Carpe Diem. (Photo by Nick Pandolfo)

YUMA, Ariz. — Carpe Diem Collegiate High School and Middle School looks more like an office or call center than a school.

Over 200 cubicles — not desks — fill this modern version of a one-room schoolhouse on a quiet side street here in Yuma, a desert city near the Mexican and California borders. All students wear uniforms and have a cubicle, with their own computer, which they decorate with sketches or band stickers instead of a typical office worker’s family photos.

Carpe Diem is trying to upend the way students are taught. In just four days of instruction a week — there’s no school on Fridays — Carpe Diem’s five teachers and four teachers’ aides supplement the concepts their 226 students have learned through a computer program. Teachers also monitor student progress through the program, which calculates grades in real time, zeroing in on the areas in which students are struggling.

“We’re going against hundreds of years of ‘That’s the way it’s always been done,’ ” says Chet Crain, the school’s dean of students.

And it seems to be working. Carpe Diem’s math and reading scores on the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards for every level from sixth to 12th grade outpace the average for Arizona schools. And the school is achieving these results with a student population that closely mirrors the demographics of other schools in the state, even though 46 percent of Carpe Diem students received free or reduced-price lunch during the 2011-12 school year, according to Carpe Diem COO Ryan Hackman, compared to an average of 75 percent in other Yuma schools. Carpe Diem’s success has caught the attention of education reformers across the country, and this fall the first of what could ultimately be six new schools opened in Indianapolis.

Because Carpe Diem is a charter school — publicly funded but privately run — there is more freedom for educators to create their own curriculum, model and vision, which Crain says is critical to the success and development of the model.

“We can turn on a dime. And not only on a dime, sometimes it’s on less than a dime,” Crain says.

Charter schools in Arizona receive about $1,700 less in per-pupil funding each year than district schools, according to a 2012 progress report from the Arizona Department of Education. But because Carpe Diem’s model requires fewer teachers than traditional public schools, it’s able to spend on operations only about $5,300 of the roughly $6,300 the school receives per student, according to Hackman. Most of the rest goes toward paying off the bond on the $2.6 million facility, which was built in 2006.

Carpe Diem is at the forefront of a movement called “blended learning,” where students receive some of their instruction online and some of it face to face. The amount of time spent online versus with traditional classroom teachers varies depending on the model, of which there are many.

In Carpe Diem’s case, students spend more than half of each school day in their cubicles, headphones plugged in, learning from an online curriculum provided by the company Education2020 (e2020), which delivers all of the core content in math, language arts, science and social studies. Four times a day, small groups of students participate in subject-specific workshops with teachers, who lead lessons that build on the e2020 curriculum and who get students to think critically about what they’re learning and apply it to class projects.

Teachers at Carpe Diem instruct students in every grade, which they say allows them over time to get to know students’ strengths and weaknesses intimately.

“It’s a lot of responsibility, but the key is that except for the new students, I know all of my students from grade six up to grade 12,” says Douglas Erlemann, Carpe Diem’s lone math teacher.

The school has its critics. Professor Michael Barbour, of Wayne State University in Detroit, says that Carpe Diem’s online curriculum is specifically designed to get kids to do well on standardized tests and graduate from high school, which it does well, but that it falls short on fostering critical thinking skills.

A student using the e2020 learning system, which is how Carpe Diem students receive most of their core instruction at the school. (Photo by Nick Pandolfo)

“The nature of the curriculum and the way in which they try and provide support to the student, it’s designed to get these students through the system,” says Barbour. “It’s designed to achieve that false belief that no child should be left behind.”

Ryan Hackmann, Carpe Diem’s chief operating officer, says that while teachers try to create more projects that promote critical thinking, it’s an area they are still strengthening as teachers adjust to their new roles in the Carpe Diem model.

Interviews with teachers, administrators and dozens of students about the type of learner who thrives at Carpe Diem all contained variations of adjectives like “self-motivated” and “hard-working.” Crain, Hackmann and teachers say that Carpe Diem isn’t for every student — and that students who aren’t dedicated and comfortable taking some control of their education might not do well and end up leaving the school. Perhaps for this reason, Carpe Diem tends to lose a higher percentage of its students each year than district schools do.

Math teacher Douglas Erlemann delivering a lesson to middle school students in one of the workshops where concepts learned from the e2020 online curriculum are deepened. (Photo by Nick Pandolfo)

Most students say they like learning from computers and enjoy the opportunity to move at their own pace. The majority say they receive as much or more attention from their teachers at Carpe Diem as they did in their previous schools.

By design, the e2020 curriculum allows students at Carpe Diem to move ahead of their peers. And some, like 14-year-old Bineetha Aluri, are grade levels ahead. Aluri, who wants to be a neurologist, has already taken five college classes at Arizona Western College, a public community college in Yuma. In addition to studying calculus there, she receives elective credit at Carpe Diem for being a teacher’s assistant in Mr. Erlemann’s math class. She’ll likely finish high school by the end of her junior year.

“My parents thought this would be better for me, and it is,” says Aluri, “because I can actually work faster than other people and I don’t have to stay at the same pace that everyone else is [at].”

But for all the success that Carpe Diem has enjoyed so far at its Yuma campus, its future remains uncertain. The bigger question of whether it can achieve success in other cities will be partly answered this year in Indianapolis, as students and teachers there try to seize the day.

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Nick Pandolfo

Nick Pandolfo writes for The Hechinger Report. A native of New York City, he majored in education at Eugene Lang College and later taught ESL… See Archive

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I have been a supporter of technology in schools since 1979. However, I would have never considered having students sit in a small box with a computer all day long. From my teaching of educational psychology, I don't believe any current educational theorist would support this strategy. Piaget and Vygotsky would have been dumbfounded as both wrestled with what to do with social interactions in the classrom and at was important to both. I had never heard of this experiment but, to me, from the outset, I could have predicted failure.

- from Dennis Jensen, Dec 27, 2017