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Students in 2012 working in the Yuma, Arizona, Carpe Diem charter school.

An Arizona-born charter school known for its call-center-like appearance has run into trouble as it attempted to expand to other states.

Carpe Diem schools, which rely on computer-based lessons and some in-person instruction, began in 2006 and opened five additional schools in Texas, Ohio and Indiana about five years ago. This week, one of the schools in Indiana is closing. The management agency charged with implementing the expansion has been disbanded, leaving the four remaining spin-off schools to rethink their strategy. Some have ditched the cubicles and are giving teachers more autonomy to go off script, as they scramble to boost anemic enrollment.

In 2012, the first school, in Yuma, Arizona, posted what seemed like promising early results. Advocates moved quickly to replicate the school in other states. These Carpe Diem-branded schools were pioneers in the blended learning movement, which uses in-person instruction aided by technology to deliver lessons to students.

“Technology was almost like the centerpiece of Carpe Diem, with the cubicles and computers,” said Robert Sommers, who was in charge of managing the school’s expansion into other states. “It is what drew your attention.”

In hindsight, he said, one of the key weaknesses was how central the technology was at Carpe Diem. Teachers didn’t have enough power over the learning. And too little attention was paid to how students are motivated by the ability to pursue their own interests.

“That is just a fundamental flaw. Kids just didn’t want to enroll, and when they did, they didn’t want to stay.”

Others possible flaws included a lack of flexibility for teachers (who had a tightly scripted day), too small a budget for in-person instruction, over-reliance on computers, a lack of extracurricular activities and a call-center-style layout that left students clicking away at screens alone for much of the day.

Many lessons can be gleaned from the Carpe Diem test balloon, and Sommers remains a supporter of blended learning. He ran public vocational schools – still open and thriving – in southwest Ohio that used computers and in-person instruction to innovate.

The Carpe Diem schools boasted about their commitment to academics, but they had a bare-bones approach that offered few extras – like a band or athletic teams. Students were often alone with a computer, headphones on, working on programs designed to offer custom-fit lessons that were neither too easy nor too hard. Teachers were there and available on the side for guidance and short, daily check-ins with students to discuss their performance. The student-to-teacher ratio was unusual: 226 students to five teachers and four teacher aides in 2012 at the Yuma school. From the beginning, teachers and students at the Yuma school said that self-motivated students were the ones who would do best.

The Yuma schools initially posted high marks on state academic achievement tests. That early success prompted the expansion into the three other states.

But the concept didn’t seem to appeal to a critical mass of students or parents. The new schools struggled, and even the Yuma school has been scrambling to sign students up. Low enrollment might be seen as a marketing problem if not for the fact that too often those who did sign up decided to leave.

“That is just a fundamental flaw,” Sommers said. “Kids just didn’t want to enroll, and when they did, they didn’t want to stay.”

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  1. Thanks for the cautionary tale. It is interesting that the term “Blended Learning” by definition meant a blend of tech and teacher lead instruction …hence the name. But some now define it as tech only.

  2. The Diane Ravitch blog (30,000,000 views) linked Dobo’s article in a post this week.
    Dobo’s information highlights the reality that the term, charter school, is a euphemism for the contractor school industry that gained traction via state and national politicians, who ignored constituent opinions.
    “Human capital pipeline”, a term used by the self-anointed ed reformers should offend us, all. And, it should compel us to action. The wealthy seek to deny citizens the right to govern the schools that they pay for and that enroll their kids. A note for reformers- labor (public school-educated) overcomes the financial sector’s 2% drag on GDP while continuing to make productivity gains for the nation.

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