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Rewriting the Rules for Public Schools

February 11, 2013 - 1 Comment

Jason KohnBy Jason Kohn, Contributing Columnist

As a parent of two elementary-age daughters, I’ve been very happy with my kids’ public school experience. Nevertheless, I’m sure if their teachers could launch a new school with a completely blank slate, there are plenty of things they would do differently.

Well, one group of charter schools called Carpe Diem is actually doing this, rebuilding the classroom from the ground up. Check out this video highlighting a Carpe Diem school in Yuma, Arizona to get a sense of just how different – and interesting – this technology-driven education.

Carpe Diem looks more like a professional office than a school. Much of the learning takes place in a large, open room with cubicles called the Learning Center, where each student has a computer workstation and a personalized digital curriculum. Adult coaches with tablets roam the Learning Center to help when kids need it. And students supplement digital learning with daily classroom time and one-on-one office hours with teachers.

Students work in the Learning Center at Carpe Diem Meridian

Students work in the Learning Center at Carpe Diem Meridian

Carpe Diem just opened a new campus for 6th to 11th graders (with plans to expand to 12th grade next year), called Carpe Diem Meridian, in Indianapolis last August. I spoke with Josh Woodward, head teacher and math instructor there, to find out more about what they’re doing.

“I taught three years in a regular district school, and it seems like we’ve done education the same way in the United States for 80 years,” says Woodward. “We move kids along based on a manufacturing model, where the most important thing is their birth date. Our school is very different. We’re not concerned about the kids’ grade levels or age. We’re concerned about what they know.”

Individualized Learning

Carpe Diem provides “blended learning,” combining personalized digital curriculum based on e2020 coursework with traditional interaction with teachers. Carpe Diem doesn’t replace teachers with computers, but by basing core instruction on digital lessons, they can provide a lot of flexibility in the classroom.

“We can do a lot of differentiation within the curriculum that you can’t really do in a traditional classroom,” says Woodward. “I have 7th graders taking 6th-grade math, 7th-grade math, 8th-grade math, algebra, all across the board. We don’t have any two kids taking the same courses. Literally, every single student’s coursework is personalized.”

Screenshot from of an Earth science course from the e2020 curriculum used at Carpe Diem Meridian

Screenshot from of an Earth science course from the e2020 curriculum used at Carpe Diem Meridian

Students are assessed on subject matter daily as part of their coursework, and they move on only when they have mastered the content. So every student steadily progresses, and teachers and administrators always know exactly how each student is doing.

“A lot of kids come in and they’re used to coasting, but it is literally impossible to coast at our school,” says Woodward. “At a traditional school, kids can go through the day and they know, we have a sub in that class, we’re not going to be doing anything. Or, I can copy my homework in that class, so I don’t have to have it done. Things like that, where the kids aren’t necessarily being held accountable at all times. Even though the teacher might want to hold them accountable at all times, it’s not plausible. But by leveraging technology, it’s completely plausible. Our kids have to do their own work or they can’t move on. You can’t hide here. You’re not going to slip through the cracks.”

Expanding Education

With digital learning, students can also take subjects that would rarely be available at a traditional public school, simply because the cost of hiring a teacher and developing a curriculum for each elective would be too high. Right now, students at Carpe Diem Meridian are taking classes in:

  • Personal finance
  • Psychology
  • Art history
  • Computer applications
  • Audio engineering
  • 3D art modeling
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Image design and editing
  • Video game design
  • Green energy design and technology
  • Flash animation and game development

Carpe Diem also offers students ACT and SAT prep courses – courses that cost many students hundreds or thousands of dollars to take privately – as part of their day-to-day instruction.

Helping Teachers

The blended learning model also makes the classroom experience more engaging for teachers.

Some Carpe Diem Meridian students and faculty in the school’s common area

Some Carpe Diem Meridian students and faculty in the school’s common area

“As a teacher, this allows me the freedom to… teach,” says Woodward. “I’m not sitting there grading 150 quizzes. I’m able to use my time to take what the kids are learning and apply it, to answer the question what does this really mean in real life? Which I always used to want to do in my previous school, but it’s almost impossible, because you have so much content you have to cover. Here, our digital curriculum is strong, it’s very rigorous. So I know they’re getting a good foundation, and then I can take that and run with it, which is a lot of fun for me.”

And while Carpe Diem Meridian is only in its first year of operation, Woodward believes that the model is already proving its worth.

“We’ve got 8th graders taking all 6th grade courses, and that’s OK, because they see their growth,” he says. “We’re all about growth. We gave the kids an assessment at the beginning of the year, and then in October and December. And the average one of my students, just for math because I can speak to that, grew two grade levels in four months.”

As a parent, it sounds fascinating. It also sounds like the kind of thing we’re going to see a lot more of as public education evolves.

“We’ve always put band-aids on things in education, doing little things here and there and then expecting these tremendous results,” says Woodward. “Very rarely has it seemed that people have really tried to turn education on its head. What we’re doing at our school really does transform education. It’s not necessarily the answer for every single student. But I think it’s a tremendous alternative, and I really enjoy it.”

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  1. Great article. I feel enervated!