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Arizona Charter School Model Offers 21st Century Education

A new school model is taking the education community by storm. Arizona isn’t known in the plant kingdom for its fertile climate, but charter schools can’t help but thrive there. Carpe Diem Schools emerged from this environment to the critical acclaim of the professional education and blogging community.

This shouldn’t be too surprising. With all sorts of successful school operators out there (like KIPP and BASIS), the spirit of competition was bound to produce another effective model. The fact that it came out of Arizona simply speaks to just how far ahead the state is with regard to the rest of the nation in terms of school choice, but we’d like to take a moment to highlight some of the reasons why Carpe Diem has emerged as a revolutionary teaching platform and not just another alternative.

First, and most importantly, the schools blend two unique experiences. It’s a hybrid program that includes one-on-one, on-site facilitation by teachers (also called “coaches”) and computer-assigned instruction (CAI) that students complete on-site as well or on their own time at home.

Now, we hear “ed tech” thrown around a lot these days, but don’t miss the forest for the trees here. The CAI is crucial for the school’s model because the school’s founder, Rick Ogston, wants to build the school around the students, and using CAI to test a student’s strengths and weaknesses before talking to the teacher is one of the best methods for streamlining the instructional process. Think about it: his students are essentially finding out what they don’t know so that they can figure it out with the help of a teacher. This is exponentially more efficient than a traditional instructor standing in front of a group of kids, hoping that what he or she is saying is sinking in and staying. What happens if the students still can’t pin down their weaknesses? All that tech in one place streams data to the teachers, who are able to track achievement and growth daily.

Something we first have to realize is that Arizona isn’t an anomaly in the education world: it has poverty, language barriers, and all the elements present in any struggling school district. Students performing at proficient or better in Yuma average about 57%, and in Arizona the number raises slightly to 65%.

Ogston reminds us that American education is suffering from what would appear to be a crisis of confidence (to borrow an appropriate term). He says “Students all across the country have been losing motivation to learn…the system was more system-centric than student-centric.” The way he would fix this: design the school from the ground up, around the students, not the bureaucracy.

Let’s look at a specific school for an example to get an idea of how student-driven this approach is.

Carpe Diem Collegiate High School is in Yuma, AZ. The school itself looks like a busy trading floor, with about 300 cubicles covering a giant learning center. In a stroke of tech savvy, attendance is taken by a card reader that detects student cards when they pass through the front door. Students divide the day into two categories, which come in 55 minute increments: 1) individual time at computers, where they complete tasks intended to test their grasp of concepts, and 2) working with teachers to clarify some of the material that might be momentarily out of reach for them. These teacher-led workshops and classes help students expand on what they learn on their own, and the historians’ adage of “Context, Context, Context” represents the crux of this activity. Teachers finally get to help the kids apply the things that they learn on their own. Very rarely can a teacher in today’s schools convey “application” to a student barely grasping the simplest concepts.

The intention here is to de-systematize. Many traditionalists may find it hard to release the reins of power, but this type of model proves that giving kids some autonomy in their education might actually make them want to learn. Suddenly, high school teachers possess a different kind of power – that of a college professor, where the students are actually there to learn and to get a degree.

The teachers at Carpe Diem know exactly where the students are in their studies. They go through data daily sheets that flow to them through the software that collects student work. They see who needs assistance and in which areas. This allows more one-on-one time with the students that need it the most, since less time is spent trying to determine who needs help and who doesn’t. There is also greater interaction over time too. Get this: students have the same math teachers for consecutive years, so there’s also shared development on the teacher’s end. Goal-setting is as simple as printing off the data, and with a longer school day (over 8 hours), kids are sure to come away much more confident. If not, Friday is an optional attendance day for extra focus time.

Oh, and remember those achievement percentages from earlier? Carpe Diem Collegiate High School led the state in student growth for the last 2 years, has consistently been in top 10% of scaled scores, and was the #1 school in Yuma County for the last 4 years.

This has got to be expensive, right? 300 computers, futuristic card-reading doors in a high school…well, it’s actually pretty cheap. Carpe Diem spends about $5300 per student, per year. One of the underlying goals of the administration is “economy and effectiveness,” and comparing these numbers to the traditional school system highlights a glaring problem in the industry. Projections for the 2012-13 school year put public spending at just over $570 billion, a national per pupil spending average of $11,467.

Carpe Diem saves money in multiple ways. Besides the shorter school week (which saves on overhead costs), staffing budgets are lower because the computer-based school model allows Carpe Diem to carry a 20:1 employee-to-student ratio, while many public schools hover at much lower ratios (Washington, for instance, has less than a 10:1 ratio).

Ogston pitches this model as offering “skills necessary to be successful in the 21st Century,” but he could just as easily pitch it as the model offering the budgets necessary to be successful in the 21st Century. Either way, Carpe Diem is popular and it’s spreading across the country, so look for it in a school market near you.


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