The Challenge: As technology becomes a ubiquitous part of a child’s life, schools are struggling to find impactful and cost-effective ways to integrate technology into learning and into the classroom.
A Solution: At Carpe Diem, an Arizona charter school earning national attention for its use of technology, students split their time between electronic curricula and workshops. In 2012, Carpe Diem was ranked among Arizona’s top ten highest-performing charter schools.
(Source: Zero to Eight: Children's Media Use in America)
YUMA, Ariz. — Carpe Diem Collegiate High School and Middle School looks more like an office or call center than a school.
Over 200 cubicles — not desks — fill this modern version of a one-room schoolhouse on a quiet side street here in Yuma, a desert city near the Mexican and California borders. All students wear uniforms and have a cubicle, with their own computer, which they decorate with sketches or band stickers instead of a typical office worker's family photos.
Carpe Diem is trying to upend the way students are taught. In just four days of instruction a week — there's no school on Fridays — Carpe Diem's five teachers and four teachers' aides supplement the concepts their 226 students have learned through a computer program. Teachers also monitor student progress through the program, which calculates grades in real time, zeroing in on the areas in which students are struggling.
"We're going against hundreds of years of 'That's the way it's always been done,' " says Chet Crain, the school's dean of students.
And it seems to be working. Carpe Diem's math and reading scores on the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards for every level from sixth to 12th grade outpace the average for Arizona schools.
And the school is achieving these results with a student population that closely mirrors the demographics of other schools in the state, even though 46 percent of Carpe Diem students received free or reduced-price lunch during the 2011-12 school year, according to Carpe Diem COO Ryan Hackman, compared to an average of 75 percent in other Yuma schools. Carpe Diem’s success has caught the attention of education reformers across the country, and this fall the first of what could ultimately be six new schools opened in Indianapolis.
Because Carpe Diem is a charter school — publicly funded but privately run — there is more freedom for educators to create their own curriculum, model and vision, which Crain says is critical to the success and development of the model.
"We can turn on a dime. And not only on a dime, sometimes it's on less than a dime," Crain says.
Charter schools in Arizona receive about $1,700 less in per-pupil funding each year than district schools, according to a 2012 progress report from the Arizona Department of Education. But because Carpe Diem's model requires fewer teachers than traditional public schools, it's able to spend on operations only about $5,300 of the roughly $6,300 the school receives per student, according Hackman. Most of the rest goes toward paying off the bond on the $2.6 million facility, which was built in 2006.
Carpe Diem is at the forefront of a movement called "blended learning," where students receive some of their instruction online and some of it face to face. The amount of time spent online versus with traditional classroom teachers varies depending on the model, of which there are many.
In Carpe Diem's case, students spend more than half of each school day in their cubicles, headphones plugged in, learning from an online curriculum provided by the company Education2020 (e2020), which delivers all of the core content in math, language arts, science and social studies. Four times a day, small groups of students participate in subject-specific workshops with teachers, who lead lessons that build on the e2020 curriculum and who get students to think critically about what they're learning and apply it to class projects.
Teachers at Carpe Diem instruct students in every grade, which they say allows them over time to get to know students' strengths and weaknesses intimately.
"It's a lot of responsibility, but the key is that except for the new students, I know all of my students from grade six up to grade 12," says Douglas Erlemann, Carpe Diem's lone math teacher.
The school has its critics. Professor Michael Barbour, of Wayne State University in Detroit, says that Carpe Diem's online curriculum is specifically designed to get kids to do well on standardized tests and graduate from high school, which it does well, but that it falls short on fostering critical thinking skills.
"The nature of the curriculum and the way in which they try and provide support to the student, it's designed to get these students through the system," says Barbour.
"It's designed to achieve that false belief that no child should be left behind."
Ryan Hackmann, Carpe Diem's chief operating officer, says that while teachers try to create more projects that promote critical thinking, it's an area they are still strengthening as teachers adjust to their new roles in the Carpe Diem model.
Interviews with teachers, administrators and dozens of students about the type of learner who thrives at Carpe Diem all contained variations of adjectives like "self-motivated" and "hard-working." Crain, Hackmann and teachers say that Carpe Diem isn't for every student — and that students who aren't dedicated and comfortable taking some control of their education might not do well and end up leaving the school. Perhaps for this reason, Carpe Diem tends to lose a higher percentage of its students each year than district schools do.
Most students say they like learning from computers and enjoy the opportunity to move at their own pace. The majority say they receive as much or more attention from their teachers at Carpe Diem as they did in their previous schools.
By design, the e2020 curriculum allows students at Carpe Diem to move ahead of their peers. And some, like 14-year-old Bineetha Aluri, are grade levels ahead. Aluri, who wants to be a neurologist, has already taken five college classes at Arizona Western College, a public community college in Yuma. In addition to studying calculus there, she receives elective credit at Carpe Diem for being a teacher's assistant in Mr. Erlemann's math class. She'll likely finish high school by the end of her junior year.
"My parents thought this would be better for me, and it is," says Aluri, "because I can actually work faster than other people and I don't have to stay at the same pace that everyone else is [at]."
But for all the success that Carpe Diem has enjoyed so far at its Yuma campus, its future remains uncertain. The bigger question of whether it can achieve success in other cities will be partly answered this year in Indianapolis, as students and teachers there try to seize the day.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Chet Crain, the school’s dean of students
Rick is the founder and CEO of Carpe Diem. He works outside the school to create partnerships with businesses and colleges, and inside the school to direct Carpe Diem’s academic direction. He advocates for a change in the “ecology of learning” within public schools – maximizing resources and putting the focus on the individual student.
“My role is kind of all encompassing,” says Hackmann. “I pretty much handle the operations of all of our Arizona schools from everything to do with running the schools from facilities to technology to finance, human resources. All of that falls under my purview.” He says he doesn’t do the day to day work on a lot of that as CDCHS now has people in those roles, but that he works with them closely and oversees the direction and procedure in those areas. Hackmann says that at CDCHS his role often bleeds into academics. “Operations and academics tend to overlap because of the type of school we are,” he says. “So I end up doing a whole lot of work with the academic oversight where basically I oversee all of the testing, and because we’re so technology driven that also falls under my role.”
“We’re the ones having day-to-day contact with the students, we’re the ones who take care of the admissions situation,” Weigel says. He contacts every student during the week, to monitor their progress and help them with any issues they might have.
Manages front office, files all required reports, manages facilities, prepares purchase orders, monitors transportation and maintains all school communications in coordination with the dean of students.
Assist with student management in the learning center, support the coaches by providing help with curriculum, and directing students in curriculum procedures.
Supervises teaching personnel, manages the learning center, monitors academics and assessment data, coordinates curriculum and assessments, provides student discipline, and career counseling in coordination with the site administrator.
“And now we’re saying, ‘They’re getting the core material, what we want you to do is supplement that, build on that, make it relevant.’ Which one would think, ‘That is what a teacher lives for. But it’s a hard transition.’”
Another challenge is preparing teachers to prepare the kinds of lessons you want in workshops, says Hackmann. “It’s really hard for them to get out of that ‘Let me stand up here and tell you something mode.’”
These interviews were conducted by NBC News' Rehema Ellis. They have been edited and condensed for clarity.
RE: Why do students respond to this model so well, what support do you give the students in human interaction that's not computer oriented?
CC: That's the difference between us and a child just being at home on a computer program. First of all, we have floor staff, and that's my initial job and my number one job is to make sure the learning center is running and it's quiet enough for them to learn. I have a support staff with professionals trained on the curriculum and we filter through - we don't allow them to move on without mastering what they're learning. When we went to school in a traditional classroom, you got a 50 or 60 on the quiz, but you just moved on, hopefully you pick it up later. Here, we don't let them do that. They must master it before they move on. so that's our number one job on the floor.
RE: How many teachers and students do you have?
CC: We limit our student population right now because of the building size and because we want to build relationships with the 260 students. We have five teaching staff. If you come to Carpe Diem, your math teacher sixth to 12th grade is one teacher. Your language arts teacher, your history teacher and your science teacher - you have the same teacher sixth through 12th grade.
RE: Do you allow kids to fail here?
CC: It's a choice they can make, but we feel if a child is not successful, what haven't we done? When Mr. Ogston told me that, I thought, “You know, I don't think you've been in the classroom very much.” I had taught a lot of years and I think I maybe made excuses sometimes for my own shortcomings. He said, “If a child doesn't pass, what have we not done? Find out.” And that's what we do and we use the data to find out. We are constantly assessing, assessing, assessing and we know exactly what our 260 students know and what they don't know. It's really hard to do that in a school of 1,500.
RE: Critics will say this is linear learning - you don't get the breadth of electives. What would you say in defense of this program?
CC: We have 50 or 60 extracurricular courses they can take, there's language courses, there's tech courses, there's a broad variety of courses that they can take, which is great because we don't have to have teachers for every one of those courses, because those teachers are online. Our mission statement is to educate with knowledge, empower with character. We also teach character. I am the character coach here. When they get into high school, we encourage them to be involved in off-campus activities - volunteer, on the job training, internships. We push them out of here. We would like to see them out of here their junior and senior year.
What is the potential for schools to look at this model and use it themselves?
The Carpe Diem model has to be built as the Carpe Diem model- it would be very hard to take a traditional public school and make this model because they're not set up for it. I admire public school teachers, but in many ways they're fighting against an antiquated system - they have computers in the classroom, just like they have a whiteboard in the classroom, and a desk in the classroom. But to make computers the teacher, I just don't think that's possible right now in the system that they have. So, I think our model has to be our model and you have to purposefully and intentionally start a school after this model.
RE: What do you say to the parent looks at this and sees kids attached to their desks and their cubicles and thinks they're not learning how to be social?
KR: A lot of parents probably would think that if they've never been here - all it takes is for you to be here for one day, just come for one day and you will see how interactive these students are with one another. We like to refer to it as a small community within our school - not only within the school but outside of the school. We make sure that we forge business relationships with small businesses here in Yuma. A lot of our students actually go and spend time in the community, whether it be at the nursing homes, whether it be at the hospital, the food bank - students are in those places actually being social and giving back to their community and that's something that we started right here in the school system.
RE: Can you explain what students can do credit-wise beyond this high school or middle school curriculum?
KR: If they desire to further their education even at this age, we give them that opportunity. If they're able to go down to the local college here and take their placement test and place into a college-level course - which some of these students are able to do, we actually have quite a few who are doing it right now - then they can go right to the local college and start taking college courses. We have students who actually graduate out of here with their associate degree in hand already and then go off to university or other colleges. If you're educationally minded and you want it, then why not start now, why wait? We don't see the point in waiting if students are ready and mature and prepared for it.
RE: Does a student here have to be pretty self-motivated?
KR: Absolutely. Absolutely, they have to have some sense of desire. Now does it mean every student comes to us that way? No, they don't. So there are things that we do that helps to get that intrinsic motivation started in them and then usually by the first six months you can see a switch almost click on and that says, “Okay, I get this now. This is why I'm here, this is what I'm doing.”
RE: Can you explain the incentive program?
KR: UBoost is an e2020 - education 2020 - curriculum that we use. It's an internal awards system, and depending on how you're doing in a class, you get so many UBoost points and those Uboost points actually can be spent in many, many different ways. Just this past January we lost our founding principal, he passed away of leukemia. Well, instantly our students asked if they could use their Uboost points to go towards the National Lymphoma and Leukemia Association and we found out that we could. So our students were able to raise over six thousand dollars just in a couple of weeks for that cause. So UBoost has been able to give kids a reason to want to do better, to continue to work hard.
RE: Is there any concern about parents pressuring their kids to do well or relying on their kids to do well so they have extra cash?
KR: Well, it's not cash that they actually get in their hand, it's kind of out there in cyberland cash, but that cash is out there and the kids know actually how many points they have and how much that's worth to them and what they can buy with that. But yes, they can go to Amazon.com, purchase things for themselves, whether it be music, whatever they have enough UBoost points for.
At Carpe Diem College High School, they set aside 2.5 percent of their budget for technology, or about $50,000 a year. They replace computers every five years and their overall budget is $1.8 to $2 million. Of the roughly $6,500 they spend per pupil, about $1,000 goes to pay off a bond they took out to build the $2.6 million facility.
Ryan Hackmann, chief operating officer, says the school in Indianapolis has received philanthropic support to the tune of about $150,000 for purchasing startup technology like computers and servers. Carpe Diem is a not-for-profit organization.
90-95% state funding (about $6,500 per pupil state funding)
5-10% from federal grants and local funding (e.g. local tax credits)
About 230 students enrolled, which is about 40 per grade level in 7th grade to 11th grade. This year’s senior class is only 28, but it will be about 40 per grade level in the future. The 6th grade class is only about 25.
65.3% - programming (teacher salaries, office supplies, support staff, student transportation, etc.)
9.2% - school administration (principal and office administration at the school)
9.3% - district-level administration
16.2% - interest payments on the bond