Video: School preps kids for life beyond the classroom

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    >>> we're back uh nnow with our education nation report about a school taking a unique approach to teaching. done are the traditional textbooks and lectures, even the classrooms. the folks say it's working. our chief education correspondent rahema ellis has our report.

    >> reporter: it is a big open space with hundreds of cubicles. fingers racing over keyboards but this is no office.

    >> this is my 7th grade language arts class.

    >> reporter: this is carpe diem , a public charter school in arizona that opened seven years ago for students 6 through 12. all 240 students spend two-thirds of the day completing coursework and listening to online lectures in addition to core lectures like math and science there is a wide range of electives.

    >> green means you're ahead in your courses.

    >> reporter: students can move ahead when a task is complete.

    >> for history if i'm good i can go faster.

    >> reporter: or spend extra time on challenging subjects. the experience isn't just about computer-based learning. students spend time in classrooms where they participate in group workshops and can have one on one time with teachers.

    >> a student who doesn't understand, say, dividing fractions, they have listened to the lecture on the computer but they still don't get it, they can come to workshop and ask a math teacher to please explain this another way.

    >> reporter: with just four teachers organizers say it's cost effective, too. there are critics.

    >> the integration of technology into the classroom is very scattered. i don't think the evidence is there.

    >> reporter: teachers here are quick to point out this type of blended learning is not for everyone. but test results are encouraging. 90% of students at carpe diem are proficient in core subjects compared to 70% statewide.

    >> i enjoy the new style of learning.

    >> reporter: he and two of his siblings attend to school where textbooks and live lectures aren't all that's missing.

    >> no homework policy.

    >> reporter: that probably makes you sad.

    >> oh, it's tragic. so tragic.

    >> reporter: mom and dad say the approach teaches more than academics.

    >> there will be a point when they have to pace themselves. there will be no teacher to stand over them.

    >> it's not like a high school where you sit down. you have to take advantage of it.

    >> reporter: lessons that go beyond the classroom. equipping students with the ability to seize success. rahema ellis, yuma, arizona.

    >> for the third year in a row nbc news is hosting education nation, a look at what's working and how you can bring solutions to your community. it includes a summit in new york and a teacher town hall moderated by brian williams tomorrow. it will air live on msnbc at 12:00 eastern, 9:00 pacific. plus we'll have coverage on air and online including interviews with president obama and mitt romney . up next tonight, thousands

Image: Classroom at Carpe Diem school
Photo by Nick Pandolfo
Students at Carpe Diem in Yuma, Ariz., listen to dean of students Chet Crain deliver his morning welcome and message.
updated 9/22/2012 7:27:29 PM ET 2012-09-22T23:27:29

Editor's note: This story is one in a 10-part series on education solutions featured at the 2012 Education Nation summit in New York on Sept. 23-25. To learn more about these schools and how they made these solutions work, please visit for a complete “digital toolkit.”

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.

Read more education analysis at The Hechinger Report

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.

Video: School preps kids for life beyond the classroom (on this page)

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 to Hackman. Most of the rest goes toward paying off the bond on the $2.6 million facility, which was built in 2006.

'Blended learning'
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.

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'Digital toolkit': Seizing the digital revolution at Carpe Diem

“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.

Education Nation: Read more and make your voice heard

Image: Student works on geometry problem
Photo by Nick Pandolfo
A student working on a geometry problem uses the e2020 learning system, which is how Carpe Diem students receive most of their core instruction at the school.

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.

nd teachers there try to seize the day.

This story, "Education Nation: In Arizona desert, a charter school competes," was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Copyright © 2013 The Hechinger Report


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