Digitally-innovative charter schools are varied and growing

In addition to online charter schools, a second category of charter schools is made up of those that are using digital content and tools extensively to change their instructional approaches. Some of the examples discussed below were started as schools that use extensive digital content and instruction. Others started as physical schools with little or no digital learning. These site-based charter schools share some characteristics with fully online charter schools, but in many ways they are fundamentally different. For example:

  • Their level of digital instruction varies. They may use digital content and tools across most subject areas, or in just one core area.
  • The proportion of instruction that takes place online varies between subjects, grade levels, and schools.
  • Because they require students to attend the physical school on most days, they are geographically limited. Student mobility in these schools is not as high as mobility in online schools.
  • Compared to public school districts, they are more likely to be using pioneering approaches to classroom and school configurations, instructional models, and bell schedules.
  • They often provide extensive professional development for teachers, because they are not able to hire enough teachers who have sufficient experience using digital content and tools.

Performance of these site-based charter schools tends to be better than state averages, although limitations of state performance frameworks that were discussed previously (see third to last paragraph) apply here as well. Some Rocketship, KIPP, and Alliance schools are among those that have demonstrated performance that surpasses state averages in terms of state assessments, graduation rates, and college matriculation. Because the portion of instruction that is digital varies, the extent to which positive results can be attributed to digital learning is unclear. Most of these schools are using innovative approaches to instruction (such as mastery-based learning and personalized learning plans) that may rely on digital tools, but use extensive non-digital, innovative instructional models as well.

Examples of digitally-innovative charter schools include the following:

Nexus Academy

Nexus Academy is a network of small (no more than 300 students) college prep charter high schools supported by Connections Education. The first five Nexus Academy schools opened in fall 2012 in Ohio and Michigan; the network added two schools in fall 2013 in Indiana and Michigan. Nexus Academy students report to campus four hours per day, four days per week, and work away from campus for about 14 hours per week. While on campus, students spend part of their time in college commons-like team zones supervised by para-educators who help them stay on track and connect with their online teachers. English and math instruction is provided by face-to-face teachers working with students in small group. Most of the Nexus Academy campuses also have fitness centers staffed by personal trainers who develop individualized fitness plans for every student. Both online and on-site teachers use student performance data to schedule students for real-time direct instruction, intervention, and group/project-based learning. In SY 2012–13 (the most recent year for which complete data are available), 92% of Nexus Academy seniors graduated, and 95% of graduates were accepted into higher education.

Blended charter schools supported by K12, Inc.

K12 Inc. opened the San Francisco Flex Academy in 2010; it serves about 100 students in grades 9–12. The Silicon Flex Academy followed in 2011, serving about 350 students, and the Newark NJ Prep Charter Academy in 2012, which served about 300 students in SY 2013–14. Students attend the schools full-time, but are given flexibility in how they meet their academic goals. Curriculum is available online, and support is available from teachers who work with students independently and in small groups, as well as from academic coaches. K12 Inc. also operates the Youth Connections Charter School’s Chicago Passport program (2009), and the Hill House Passport Academy in Pittsburgh (fall 2014), both of which are blended programs that target students who have dropped out of high school, offering a flexible path to high school graduation.

Summit Public Schools

Summit Public Schools operates seven charter high schools serving approximately 2,000 students in the San Francisco Bay Area, and it has been approved to open two schools in Washington State in fall 2015. A SY 2011–12 pilot in math classrooms in two schools using Khan Academy laid the foundation for the first two fully blended schools that opened in SY 2013–14, and for the approach being used by all seven Summit schools as of SY 2014–15. The schools use a combination of self-directed online learning, small group work, project-based learning, and individualized attention from teachers and support staff in a very different type of academic space that allows for students to work independently on computers, with small groups, or with larger groups in a classroom. Summit has monitored its blended learning implementation carefully, using data from student surveys, student focus groups, and student performance to drive improvement. Its blended schools found positive results compared to the Summit schools that had not yet implemented blended learning.

Aspire Public Schools

Aspire Public Schools was founded in 1998 in Silicon Valley. It now operates 34 schools in California and three schools in Tennessee, together serving over 37,000 students. For the past four years, 100% of Aspire’s graduates have been accepted for admission to a four-year college or university. Every year, Aspire creates a report about each school that includes standardized test results, parent involvement opportunities, the school’s API score (in California), and enrollment data. Its Tennessee schools won a Next Generation Learning Challenges grant, and Aspire plans to expand with 10 additional schools in Tennessee in the next few years. Aspire introduced blended learning in two of its schools in 2011, incorporated it into five schools by SY 2013–14, and is planning to use blended learning in 14 schools across the country by SY 2015–16, including all of its Los Angeles schools.


KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) launched in 1994, and is one of the largest charter management organizations in the country with 162 charter schools in 20 states and Washington, DC serving 58,000 students as of SY 2014–15. KIPP’s origins predate widespread digital learning, and varied instructional models exist in different schools. However, many KIPP schools including five in Los Angeles utilize blended learning. Each spring the KIPP Foundation releases a report card that contains school information, school demographics, and test score data for all KIPP schools.

FirstLine Schools

FirstLine Schools was founded in 1998 under the name Middle School Advocates, and changed its name to FirstLine in 2008. It served about 2,400 students in four elementary schools and one high school in New Orleans in SY 2013–14. Its schools serve an average of a 97% free and reduced-price meal population, and historically, its students performed very poorly on state assessments. Arthur Ashe Elementary School and Joseph S. Clark Preparatory High School began using a rotation model of blended instruction in SY 2011–12 in math and English language arts; all five schools are incorporating blended models as of SY 2014–15. In eight years of operation, each school has shown positive growth results, and all schools are near or above state averages for achievement.

Alliance College-Ready Public Schools

Alliance College-Ready Public Schools is a charter school network of 26 middle and high schools serving more than 10,000 students in the greater Los Angeles area, most of whom are low-income. Alliance creates a personalized learning plan for each student, and 10 of its schools use a digital learning approach the network calls “Blended Learning for Alliance School Transformation.”

In addition to the above schools, Rocketship Education and Carpe Diem are two well-known school networks; profiles of them are available in the Keeping Pace 2014 annual report.

This is not an exhaustive list. Additional charter schools and networks that are taking innovative approaches to the use of digital learning include USC Hybrid High School in Los Angeles, Intrinsic Schools in Chicago, and Matchbook Learning, with schools in Detroit and Newark.