Philanthropists award $100,000 grants to encourage blended learning in D.C.

A coalition of local and national philanthropists has awarded grants to six groups that hope to lift the achievement of the District’s low-income children with schools that emphasize individualized learning, including programs that will use a combination of online and face-to-face instruction.

Two of the winners of the Breakthrough Schools: D.C. competition are traditional schools — Wheatley Education Campus in Northeast and Columbia Heights Education Campus in Northwest — each of which submitted proposals to redesign their approach to teaching and learning.

The other winners, chosen from among 23 applicants, included a charter school, E.L. Haynes High School, and three groups seeking to establish new charter schools.

All six will receive $100,000 to help them flesh out their proposals over the summer, and they will be eligible for as much as $300,000 in additional funds to help launch their schools starting in 2015.

D.C. philanthropist Katherine Bradley, whose CityBridge Foundation is a major funding source for the education initiative and many others in the District, said the grants are part of a larger strategy to rapidly increase the number of “transformational schools.” Such schools are designed from the ground up to help poor children reach the same academic achievement levels as their more affluent peers.

School improvement usually is incremental and slow, Bradley said, adding that she believes the city can rapidly improve the lives of poor children by introducing 100 transformational schools in the next decade.

“Schools need to reach a very high bar for performance; simply improving is no longer enough,” Bradley said. “We have high hopes that these Breakthrough Schools winners are creating plans and demonstrating capabilities that should get them there.”

The grant program was meant to reward innovative ideas for “blended learning” through online and in-person instruction, but there is wide variation among the winners’ plans.

E.L. Haynes officials are seeking to redesign their school to solve two challenges.

First, it’s difficult to meet the wide range of needs among freshmen, some of whom are advanced while others are reading years behind grade level. Second, in a small high school with a traditionally structured day, it’s difficult to prepare students for the reality of college life.

Haynes will establish a “Red Shirt Academy” for ninth-graders who need intensive help to catch up. Teachers will use the year to find and plug holes in each student’s basic skills before the students are allowed to move on to the regular ninth grade.

Seniors will enroll in the College Access Academy, which will have a much higher teacher-to-student ratio and where students will do more of their learning online and in the community, often working independently. The goal is to ease students into learning the time management and self-motivation they will need to succeed in college.

E.L. Haynes principal Caroline Hill said the goal is not to ensure that students graduate within four years, but that they leave Haynes with the skills they need to make it all the way through college.

“We do have students that need five years,” Hill said. “How thoughtful can we be about preparing students to be in a class with 500 students where no one knows their name?”

The Columbia Heights Education Campus would redesign its staffing and schedule so students can take courses online — including through massive open online courses (MOOCs) — while spending more time off campus, completing internships and study-abroad opportunities for credit.

“It’s fantastic,” D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said. “I count CityBridge as an important partner in helping us to innovate.”

Two of the winners have charter school applications pending before the D.C. Public Charter School Board. They are Washington Leadership Academy, which would operate a lower school for ninth- and 10th-graders and a residential upper school for juniors and seniors. Upper school students would complete internships on Capitol Hill and help develop online tools to teach students across the country lessons in U.S. civics.

Monument Academy would be a weekday boarding school for high-risk students, especially students who are in the foster care system, and it would pair academics with an effort to meet the particular social and emotional needs of foster children.

Emily Bloomfield, a former charter board member who is leading Monument Academy, said the Breakthrough Schools grant will allow for travel to schools that are doing an excellent job serving similar populations. “It will be incredibly helpful in our planning year,” she said.

The final winner is a group seeking to open Montessori schools in the District and around the country and to establish a teacher residency program to address the shortage of trained Montessori educators.

CityBridge and the national Next Generation Learning Challenges expect to donate $6 million to fund 18 “breakthrough schools” by 2017. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also are contributing.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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