Dalia Hochman is the director of K-12 model development and adoption at Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC).
Principal Barton Dassinger begins each day by updating the master Excel spreadsheet he keeps on his students. At Cesar E. Chavez Multicultural Academic Center in Chicago’s infamous Back of the Yards neighborhood, student mobility is so high that Dassinger often has to correct his enrollment figures on a daily basis. He then goes through each column and makes sure all of the data from the various learning software programs his teachers use has been accurately uploaded into the master file. (Dassinger used to upload the data files by hand, but he has worked tirelessly with software companies to make sure the data files are interoperable with one another and with his master learning management system).
Once he is confident in his data, Dassinger sends the file to the teachers. This is the Chavez way: student by student, under the strong watch of a data-oriented principal and led by district teachers who have come to believe that blended learning, competency-based progressions, and an extended day will help all of their students succeed.
I recently visited Chavez with a group of teachers from Washington, D.C. who are part of CityBridge Foundation’s Education Innovation Fellowship. Many of the D.C. teachers I was traveling with are trying to encourage innovation at schools very much like Chavez—regular, neighborhood district schools, with existing rank-and-file teachers and entrenched socioeconomic challenges. The Fellows were inspired by their visit to Chavez, where 99% of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, or FRL (97% of which qualify for free lunch), 53% receive bilingual services, and there is a 14% mobility rate. Back of the Yards is one of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods; the local park where Chavez teachers take the children to play is Cornell Square Park, the site of the 2013 shooting that injured a three year-old child and provoked a national outcry against gun violence.
Yet despite all of the challenges of educating a transient, mostly immigrant student population, Chavez has made dramatic improvements. In 2013-2014, Chavez was ranked one of the top 16 schools in the district. (It is worth noting that six out of the 16 schools have selective admissions policies.) In 2014, Chavez students also performed in the 97th percentile in reading on the NWEA-MAP test and in the 96th percentile in math on the NWEA-MAP test. The school has also mapped out other indicators of success, such as student agency and resilience, and is piloting a new assessment tool from the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research that measures such factors.
Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) has been proud to support innovation in a mix of district and charter settings. Chavez is a planning grantee participating in our regional funds strategy; LEAP Innovations serves as the local incubator of the first cohort of NextGen schools in Chicago.
The Fellows had many questions for both Dassinger and the panel of Chavez teachers who met with our group. A primary question centered on how the school was able to develop such universal buy-in among veteran teachers. For Chavez, the answer was that the NextGen experience started as an after-school pilot where senior teachers were able to see firsthand how additional time on task to practice more basic reading and math skills significantly helped students succeed.
The school also had the ability to run a natural experiment: One year, Chavez’s own teachers ran blended learning labs after school; the second year, external volunteer teachers and youth workers ran the lab. The difference in results was astronomical: An extra hour a day of blended learning taught by students’ own classroom teacher and connected to core curriculum was much more successful than bringing on an additional teacher to play on the computer with kids. For Chavez teachers, who are so committed to student success, the data convinced even the most skeptical that technology could be a powerful tool to help them do what they had been doing for years—differentiate, group, personalize, and allow students to accelerate or decelerate based on their own rates of progress.
This year, in the fourth year of the pilot, the school is especially proud of a small group of eighth graders. Some are taking a virtual course in Algebra II, while others travel to the state’s top high school (one of the city’s most selective) to take honors geometry with high school freshmen—the natural consequence of a system that allows students to master content at their own pace.
And when teachers come to Dassinger with problems or complaints about software, he doesn’t throw up his hands and complain about the edtech industry like a lot of educators. Instead, he calls up the software companies directly and gives them feedback, working closely with their designers to come up with solutions. He also agrees to pilot new products and has developed very close relationships with the industry. When the D.C. teachers asked what the district could better do to support his use of technology, he was fairly clear: independence and autonomy from any centralized policies allows him the flexibility to purchase and tailor software based on the needs and interests of his teachers and students. Based in part on Dassigner’s experience working closely with edtech industry developers, LEAP Innovations has developed a program to intentionally bring educators like him together with industry experts around certain challenges and topics such as literacy.
But one of the images that proved to be the most heartwarming to this group of young, tech-savvy teachers from D.C. visiting Chavez had nothing to do with technology. In one first grade classroom, the teacher had set up a rotational model: One small group of students practices basic skills on their laptops, one group practices guided reading with their teachers, some students work on their own, and one group holds a classroom discussion led by a specially trained first grade “leader.” Our group was transfixed by the first grade “apprentice teacher” in action (she is one of several student leaders who have been specially trained to lead small groups): Here was the natural extension of personalized learning and student agency. The teacher explained that when students learn at their own pace, the more varied group will need more leadership in the classroom—so she chooses a few particularly apt students each year and trains them to lead group work, ask questions, check for understanding, and keep the group focused.
Cesar Chavez stands out as an NGLC gem within a traditional district setting. The school puts aside any doubts that personalized, blended, and competency-based instruction can thrive even in the most challenging of settings.