Bagels and iPads

I started my day last Wednesday in the cafeteria of Rocky Mountain Prep (RMP) with 120 pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and 1st grade students having breakfast. I asked a table of students to tell me their favorite thing about school. The first answer was an enthusiastic, “Bagels!!” as a sweet little boy held up his bagel with cream cheese backed by a huge smile. The next answer was perhaps a little more what I was hoping to hear, as a 1st grader in a smart navy uniform said, “Reading on my iPad!!” When I told her I had an iPad in my bag, she was very impressed and wanted me to pull it out so she could show me her favorite reading program right away. I politely declined based on the amount of cream cheese and orange segments on the table, but told her I would find her later in her classroom. Rocky Mountain Prep is a Denver Public Schools charter school based in southeast Denver that is chartered to serve grades PK-8. It opened in fall 2012 and is serving about 120 students in grades PK-1; it will add one grade each year at least through 5th grade. Presently, 83% of its students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Its founder and executive director, James Cryan, is a smart and enthusiastic Teach for America grad who is working hard to create a school model that does a better job serving at-risk students than the traditional public school. It is too early to be able to report assessment results, although according to Cryan their mid-year assessment results are positive.

RMP is borrowing from best practices around the country. They offer breakfast to all of their students, knowing that students learn better on a full stomach. They rely on an in-class rotational blended learning model (which is what Rocketship is shifting to in the coming year, away from its separate computer labs); a typical day might include small group instruction, independent learning, and skills practice on a computer. It relies on high-energy Teach for America grads for its lead teacher positions. The teachers are using multiple software programs (which raises its own technical challenges, a topic we’ll save for another post), and are not afraid to shift directions when they realize something isn’t working as well as they would like.

However, the school is also taking some innovative (at least to me) approaches to instruction that deserve a mention. Each classroom has two professionals: a lead teacher and a teaching fellow, which allows the school to raise the number of students in each room (and thereby reduce its operating costs). The teaching fellow receives a monthly stipend along with a generous amount of professional development; the expectation is that fellows train for a year and become lead teachers. Each lead teacher sets his or her own weekly professional development goal and receives a 15-minute observation each week. A friend of mine at a Denver-area high school told me that her principal didn’t walk in her classroom once last year – which teacher do you think is more likely to grow and be successful?

Here’s the bottom line: there is no silver bullet solution to the challenges facing our schools today. The solution isn’t just about the technology or choosing the right software program, nor is it just about emulating a blended learning model that has worked successfully in another school. Cryan chose blended learning because he believes it is effective, yet the teachers and staff have created a dynamic learning environment that is based on a number of best practices, and they aren’t afraid to tweak things and try something new. Blended learning gives them flexibility and allows them to individualize instruction, creating an environment where students succeed.