This week we had the privilege of visiting Merit Preparatory Charter School in Newark, New Jersey. Highly personalized education through blended live and technology-based learning is the core strategy being used there to inspire a population of inner-city middle school students who face a sizable learning gap for a variety of reasons.
As in other schools that are implementing these instructional strategies, finding the right class schedule has been a challenge. The schedule has already been changed four times in only the second year of operation, now utilizing four two-hour blocks and weekly Playlists that are tracked in the Canvas LMS for guiding student work and progress. Adjustments to the master schedule are primarily motivated by logistical challenges such as managing hallway and stairwell capacities for student movement, recharging computers, and limited common areas.
According to the chief administrator, it's the non-academic issues that consume far too much management time. Lesson Learned: Headphones--Headphones are a big issue, with students breaking 300 last year. Now headphones are part of the uniform code and supplied by parents.
Mastering vs Covering
Implementing blended learning usually creates a polarity between mastering the curriculum and covering the curriculum. Like it or not, the effectiveness of this school will be evaluated based on the students' results from standardized testing such as Scantron Performance Series. Mastery of the material is the ideal, but preparation for the content on the test is a conflicting priority. This challenge is compounded by the fact that the online curriculum that is available still isn't strong enough yet to offer a sufficient level of personalization, standards implementation across the whole curriculum, assessment integration, and growth tracking.
Merit's leadership is also seeking better ways to cultivate the interpersonal intelligences of students, and develop better critical thinking. Advisory was offered each day, but is now limited to one day per week.
In our conversations with pioneering schools across the country, the consistent concern is about finding enough administrators and teachers who have the credentials, skills and grit to work in such an innovative environment.
Stadiums & Skyboxes
Merit is housed in a multi-story building designed for office space, located directly across the street from the gold-domed Newark City Hall. Classrooms are organization based on the academic disciplines: Humanities on the 5th floor, Math on the 4th floor, and Science on the 3rd floor. A master teacher leads in each large "stadium" area with glass-walled "sky boxes" for small group instruction. Junior teachers are assigned to a master teacher to collaborate on instruction.
Lesson Learned: Laptop Assignment -- Assigning laptops to students is not effective. They decided this year to have the computers assigned to learning spaces rather than to students, and students are not yet permitted to take computers home.
Exit tickets are used every day to track student progress and are implemented with an application. Assessment elements are pulled from NWEA and other sources such as MasteryConnect. They originally worked with EdElements for data management, then switched to another LMS that suspended business operations earlier this year. They are now in the process of building their own system, called Scoreboard, which rolled out this week. Kickboard is used for tracking merits and demerits.
Other Lessons Learned by Merit's leaders:
- Science is best taught in hands-on learning labs rather than online.
- Non-fiction reading skills and strategies are vital.
- The second year is definitely harder than the first.
- Lead time of at least 6 months for planning in advance is a huge advantage before opening a school.
- Need to plan what % of learn, practice, apply, and assess should be accomplished online vs live, automated vs interpersonal