Detroit Public Schools welcomes blended learning into the classroom

Blended learning is a so-called "disruptive innovation"—a new technology or method that shakes up old, declining institutions.

Between the revolving door of the Office of the Emergency Manager and the recent scandal involving kickbacks for principals, a disruption sounds like the last thing the Detroit Public Schools system needs. But A.L. Holmes Elementary-Middle School had to disrupt its stream of students who were not meeting grade levels in basic subjects.

A.L. Holmes, housed in an old brick building located near Hamtramck, the Coleman A. Young Municipal Airport and the I-94 freeway, serves a high-poverty urban population. But over the past four years, the school has become a center of high-tech learning and innovative classroom models. As a result, A.L. Holmes showed consistent improvement, enough to be recognized as a Michigan Department of Education reward school.

"When we first started, we had one or two students at grade level, and now we're looking to have 50 percent of the class,"  says Principal Tammy Mitchell. "We've grown from a persistently low-performing school to a reward school because of our continued growth."

A.L. Holmes Elementary School Principal Tammy Mitchell

Progress has been so steady that parents who have moved their families out of the community still transport their children back to A.L. Holmes, according to Mitchell. "That's huge here, and it has to do a lot with our blended learning program and the growth they're seeing in their children."

Lighting the fire with Matchbook

After receiving a $2.8 million school improvement grant from the State of Michigan in 2011, A.L. Holmes invested in technology—netbooks, iMacs, smart boards and broadband—and contracted Matchbook Learning

Matchbook is a national nonprofit organization based in Atlanta, Georgia that brings blended learning to schools in the bottom five percent of academic performance. A. L. Holmes was its prototype. They're now working with Michigan Technical Academy's charter elementary and middle schools in Detroit and Redford, as well as Merit Preparatory Charter School in Newark, New Jersey.

At the start of the 2011 school year, Matchbook targeted reading and math in A.L. Holmes's third through eighth grades. Students received instruction from online teachers along with the school's teachers.

According to the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, 74 percent of students in reading and 83 percent of students in math made gains of 10 percent or more, with 29 percent of those students making greater than 30 percent gains.

As their blended learning methods evolved and adjusted to the school, online teachers were phased out. Holmes turned to the "station-rotation" classroom model, where students were divided into small groups that rotated between computer work, teacher instruction and assignment work. A.L. Holmes then expanded blended learning to all students, K-8.

Leenet Campbell-Williams, former principal of the school and now its blended learning project director, says that growth is still steady. Campbell-Williams and Mitchell agree that there is still a lot of room for improvement, but the tools they acquired are working.

Because of the program's success over the past two years, A. L. Holmes ended its partnership with Matchbook.

Teachers are key

Any digital device with a screen and broadband brings excitement into a classroom full of children. "Today's students are digital learners," Campbell-Williams says. 

But by itself, digital learning is not a magic solution—sometimes it takes a teacher working face-to-face to help that student along.

"You can't show that progress with students if you don't have teachers in place who provide that differentiated instruction for the students," says Mitchell. "In this case, the live teacher was key."

Campbell-Williams adds, "Removing the teacher is really removing a very important relationship. Even before you get down into some of the mechanics of it all, the drills and the content, it's relational. I think that's another big piece that I hope we don't lose in education."

Better data, better students

Miguel Davis, client solutions director at Macro Connect, a Detroit-based tech company that works with more than a hundred schools nationally and in Detroit, says that with each passing year, the digital tools for blended learning improve.

Depending on the definition of "blended learning," most schools use some form of it, even if they only incorporate the digital with their students once a week or month.

"I think people would be really surprised with all of the innovation that's happening here in education," Davis says. "Nationally, there are schools doing really neat and interesting things that are getting results for kids." 

But what are the benefits of blended learning for at-risk students in struggling urban schools? One is the ease of using data to find which students are struggling and track their improvement. 

"In particular, for schools that have populations that might be multiple grade levels behind, the benefit is getting better student data," Davis say. "It becomes more and more challenging, when you have students at all different levels, to figure out exactly where the gaps are for students, and how to teach to them at their level."

Those data systems provide valuable information to teachers, helping them diagnose and intervene with students who have gone grade levels without filling in foundational gaps they need to be successful.  

A.L. Holmes's station-rotation model is one creative example of the ways schools are combating those gaps.

"It opens up the ability of the teacher to work one-on-one or in a small group setting with students, as opposed to being that person at the front of the room who's providing the same message to 30 students at a time," says Davis. 

Training the teachers

Campbell-Williams says the evolution of their blended learning model forced the school to help its teachers, in addition to the students, learn new skills.

"Teacher development has become huge here, because not only do they learn technology skills, they learn how to really analyze data," she says.

Data helps find the students who struggle to keep up, and struggling students are easier to work with in small groups.

"Students can get lost in classes with 35 filled seats," says Campbell-Williams. "Low-performing kids shouldn't always stay low, they should move throughout the process." 

Campbell-Williams hopes what they've learned in the process can be used throughout the Detroit Public Schools.

"It's a new way to deliver education and is actually a viable solution."  

This story is part of a series on online education in Michigan. Support for this series is provided by Michigan Virtual University.

Mark Wedel has been a Michigan freelance journalist since 1992. For contact information, visit
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