Journalist John Fensterwald visited a Rocketship charter school where “blended learning,” a combination of 1:1 online learning and classroom teaching, took place. This article appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Administrator. I wrote about a regular classroom at the same school.
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….
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….
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….