Catholic schools have long played a role in providing inner city parents with a quality education alternative for their children.
Unfortunately we are seeing increasing numbers of these schools close down as resources dwindle.
That makes the story of the Mission Dolores Academy, which serves a diverse group of K-8 inner-city students in San Francisco, particularly compelling.
Once struggling, this school is increasing enrollment, holding the line on costs, and improving student learning. Mission Dolores Academy isn’t just surviving, it’s thriving. And it is doing so by adopting a blended learning model, one that provides children access to computers, using topflight educational software, along with instructional time in a standard classroom.
Blended learning combines the best of both approaches and students at Mission Dolores are responding.
Dan Storz, the school’s principal, shares how the idea for Mission Dolores Academy came about, “Two urban, inner-city Catholic schools in San Francisco were facing rising costs and declining enrollment. From this environment, school leaders talked about how to use digital learning to revitalize these schools in a financially sustainable way while providing a high-quality education for inner-city kids.”
Three years ago, these two schools merged to form Mission Dolores Academy, a place where teachers blend online learning with small-group instruction. The non-profit Seton Education Partners partnered with the new school, and Mission Dolores Academy became the pilot school for Seton’s blended learning program, the Phaedrus Initiative.
Seton’s grant covered hardware, software and networking upgrades as well as teacher training. And when the school opened its doors in 2011, each Mission Dolores Academy classroom was outfitted with 15 computers and online software to deliver personalized instruction to every student. Using what’s known as a rotational model, teachers arranged classes to balance students’ time between instruction on the computers and instruction with their teacher.
While half a class used computers, the other half worked with the teacher. Groups switched about every half hour.
Today, the model looks pretty much the same. Teachers are further individualizing instruction by breaking classes into even smaller groups during their offline instructional time. For example, it’s common to see one group online, one group working with their teacher, another group in peer-to-peer discussions, and still other students working independently offline.
While at work on the computers, students use online software that targets exactly what they need to learn. If a student is struggling, it helps her catch up. If she quickly understands, she can accelerate and explore the topic at a more complex level. Students appreciate the difference.
Starnesia Hooper, an eighth grader at Mission Dolores Academy, says blended learning helps a lot in math. “Now it’s easier,” she explains. “I can get an introduction to a subject before we start a new lesson, so I’m already familiar with it. I’m able to understand new things more quickly.”
And when she is ready for something more advanced, Hooper can learn beyond the eighth-grade standards. She says, “Using computers, we’re able to do more work by ourselves, and move ahead when we’re ready. We’re able to go ahead into the high school-level work.”
The online software used by Mission Dolores Academy not only provides complete content and differentiated learning for students; it also gives teachers a real-time picture of student learning. Storz says teachers have stepped up to learn how to use student learning reports and data in their classrooms. They see the information as a valuable tool.
“I can log in as a teacher and see what each student did, how many times they’ve done this, and where they’re stuck,” explains Rochelle Reid, a first-grade teacher at the school. Blended learning in the classroom helps her identify students having a hard time so she can work with those students in a small group using a different approach.
In fact, Mission Dolores Academy teachers may teach a certain skill or standard multiple times to different student groups in the same class. And each group’s lesson will be customized based on what those students need – whether that is remedial work or something more complex.
Hooper reports that since blended learning was implemented she finds it easier to master complex concepts. “Teachers have more time to help us with what we’re struggling with in smaller groups,” she points out. “We get more one on one time with teachers.”
As the school’s leader, Storz deeply appreciates the information the school gets back from its online learning providers. He says, “These reports provide another data point that allows us to get a daily or weekly picture of student performance – to show us how students are doing and how our school is doing to meet its mission of preparing our kids to be successful in high school and college.”
Students at Mission Dolores Academy have experienced robust academic gains under its blended learning program. For example, data indicates students who entered the school behind grade level are catching up. Year-end assessments last year showed significant gains in math in the school’s upper grades: as high as three years of progress in just a single year.
Principal Storz says he is encouraged by his students’ growing achievement, especially the school’s lower-quartile students. He says, “Blended learning in our school is building confidence for kids who might have been struggling, and motivating stronger, more advanced learners who need a challenge so they won’t get bored.”
This is exactly what happened for Bryan Bautista, also in eighth grade. He says, “I think I’ll be more prepared for high school and the future now that I’m really used to using technology.”
In its first year, Mission Dolores Academy served 215 students. Two years later, the school is serving 250 students. Through blended learning, teachers are able to teach more students while maintaining the high-quality learning and the individualized time and relationship building the school values.
And their progress isn’t going unnoticed.
Mission Dolores Academy’s program is a model for other schools looking to implement blended learning. A delegation of education leaders from Singapore was just one group to tour Mission Dolores Academy recently. Last year, the school also welcomed observers from Philadelphia, Chicago, Denver, Seattle, and San Jose.
Educators are drawn to San Francisco’s independent Catholic school for one common reason: to learn about its innovative blended learning program. With more schools exploring various models of blended learning, Mission Dolores Academy is a shining example of a school using technology to engage students and empower teachers.