Chandler district looks to start 'blended learning' at Willis Junior High - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Education News

Chandler district looks to start 'blended learning' at Willis Junior High

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Posted: Thursday, March 31, 2011 3:30 pm

A buzz word making the rounds in education reform circles will soon become reality in the Chandler Unified School District.

Willis Junior High School is looking to start a "blended learning" classroom for a group of students as soon as next fall. It could be the first true, hybrid learning model in Arizona.

But it certainly won't be the last.

In the classroom, students will receive face-to-face time with teachers as well as computer instruction.

The blended instruction means students can go beyond even the most advanced courses offered at their school or dive deeper into subjects they need assistance with, said principal Paul Bollard.

"What we're trying to do is really let students work at their own pace, or individualized instruction," he said.

The district will use free online content combined with curriculum developed by educational software companies.

Schools like this are receiving a lot of attention. There's the New York School of One, as well as the Chicago Voise Academy.

"I've spoken to people at both of those schools and we intend to continue to get more ideas. We're not limited to those schools, but they're doing some of the things we want to do," he said.

Bollard said he and Superintendent Camille Casteel saw the need for an innovative approach to learning in Chandler. The district is experiencing both growth and decline - depending on where schools are located. Willis is in the northern part of the district that is seeing a decline.

This could be a way to draw people into the campus, Bollard said. He said he presented the idea to the parents group at the school and the response was "positive."

"They thought they could see the opportunities available out there through appropriate use of technology. They were excited about it," he said.

What subjects will be covered at first for Willis students is still being considered, said Lorah Neville, the district's director of curriculum.

"We know we can do it pretty easily with math but we're looking at the other areas to see how much hybrid we can do. In early April we'll get a better sense. It will all involve traditional instruction, and instruction via tools on the Web, tutors, those kinds of things," she said. "Our goal is to do as many core topics as we can as long as we can afford the content to do it."

The program would be open to students at all levels, Neville said.

"We're looking at flexible schedules with content delivery as opposed to now with traditional 75 minutes of content area and then going onto the next thing," she said.

Mesa Unified School District Superintendent Mike Cowan told the Tribune his district is also exploring options with the blended learning approach. The district plans to meet with a company this spring to put a vision together that outlines what the program could look like, sort of a "day in the life of a student," he said.

Cowan said that, like the idea at Chandler's Willis, a small group of students could start in the program, with it then spreading to other district sites in the future.

Mesa Republican Rich Crandall, chairman of the Senate education committee, has travelled around the East Valley talking to school districts about this approach as a way to rethink education and possibly address funding issues.

In fact, Crandall has proposed legislation that would allow districts with blended learning classrooms to break free of some state rules that require a certain number of minutes of education per subject area.

Crandall is a member of the Digital Learning Council, an initiative launched by Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida; and Bob Wise, former governor of West Virginia. The council is looking at ways to create "a high quality digital learning environment to better prepare students with the knowledge and skills to succeed in college and careers."

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