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Blended learning takes Greeley-Evans District 6 by storm

Greeley Tribune
October 18, 2014

By Tyler Silvy

Scott Ellis took his Greeley audience back in time to when he was in first grade at Tavelli Elementary School in Fort Collins.

Ellis was speaking in front of Greeley-Evans School District 6 administrators Sept. 30 at Engage Online Academy in Greeley.

The subject was competency-based learning, which is a fancy way of saying students advanced through material at their own pace.

“It was called the red workbook,” Ellis said. “I would go and get the red workbook, and I would do the red workbook, and I would show it to my teacher, and if it was right, then I’d go and do the yellow workbook. Then I would do the blue workbook, and it didn’t matter what workbook everybody else was on.”

“We don’t say, ‘It’s time to start studying fractions because it’s Monday,’” Ellis said. “We move on to study fractions because the students are ready to study fractions.”
Ellis goes deeper, bringing his point to the 21st century.

“That is competency-based learning,” Ellis said. “Now, there’s the technology for every teacher to do this. The technology is what makes it possible.”

Ellis is the CEO of a Silicon Valley-based nonprofit called The Learning Accelerator, and he was back in Northern Colorado recently to discuss the modern equivalent of what he experienced in first grade.

It’s called blended learning, and the goal, as with almost any education initiative, is to boost student achievement. D6 is in Year 2 of its 5-year rollout of its blended learning program.

In a handout passed around at Ellis’ Sept. 30 visit, D6 extolled the virtues of blended learning — and the district’s part in it.

“Blended learning will revolutionize learning for our students,” the handout read. “With the assistance of technology, we will dramatically increase student control over their time, place, path and pace of learning.”


Blended learning looks a bit different from state to state, district to district, school to school and even between classrooms.

But at its core, blended learning combines traditional teacher-led instruction with online courses that can be customized to teach students at those students’ own pace.

Within Greeley-Evans School District 6, where several schools have pilot programs, blended learning takes shape in three distinct ways.

The “Flipped” method has students rotate on a fixed schedule between face-to-face instruction, teacher-guided practice on campus and online content work at home.

The “Lab-Rotation” method has students rotate from teacher-led instruction to an online learning lab within the school building.

At Centennial Elementary School on Tuesday, third-grade math teacher Ashley Vallejos was using the “Station-Rotation” model. Students were scattered throughout their classroom. Vallejos moved around the room. She helped a couple of students with heads together on a work sheet.

She jumped to a bank of computers to make sure another student was progressing through his online lesson, then it was back to the front of the room to give a short lesson to another group of students.

If that sounds like a lot of work, it is.

But working with these small groups as opposed to lecturing at the front of a 30-student class, Vallejos said, “Is the dream.”

Centennial Principal Anthony Asmus said the free software, Zearn, and the Engage New York curriculum are simply supplements for District 6 math curriculum, Everyday Math.

But the results, at least for Vallejos, are extraordinary. Her students are much farther along than they would have been last year, Vallejos said.

“I would have never gotten here (without blended learning),” Vallejos said.


District 6 hasn’t paid a penny in starting blended learning. The Learning Accelerator is a nonprofit. The additional technology, both software and hardware, as well as professional development for teachers at Bella Romero, was paid for by an anonymous local donor. That donation is now over $100,000.

Upgrades to the district’s bandwidth — it’s ability to go really fast on the Internet — were nearly all covered by an eRate Grant, District 6 Interim Superintendent Wayne Eads said. That grant was secured with $30,000 in matching donations from the Success Foundation.

But there are budgetary concerns. And those concerns have some administrators saying computers, iPads or other technology aren’t integral for blended learning. In general, Ellis begs to differ.

Computers are such an important part of blended learning for Ellis that without them, the whole program might as well be for naught, he said.

At the same time, Ellis stresses the importance of finding money within the district budget to make blended learning sustainable for the long term. After all, Ellis said, not every district can plan on anonymous donors or large cash grants to start blended learning programs.

That’s one reason D6 is starting slow.

The following schools have stepped up to the plate for pilot programs: Franklin, Heath and John Evans middle schools, Centennial Elementary School third- and fourth-graders, Bella Romero sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students, Jefferson High School ninth- and 10th-graders and ENGAGE Online Academy grades 6-12.

The district won a competitive bid to become one of three Learning Accelerator pilot districts in the nation. D6 beat out Topeka, Kan., Eads said, smiling.

The Learning Accelerator also has partnerships with a Reynoldsburg, Ohio, school district and the Los Angeles Unified School District.

But those districts and others across the country that have implemented something like blended learning all do it differently.

That’s kind of by design. Model A might work great, while Model B has some problems. One of The Learning Accelerator’s main goals is to find data that points to successful rollouts and push other districts toward the most successful models.

“Districts everywhere are taking a lot of the steps,” Ellis said. “But they’re starting to call me and say, ‘I’m interested in blended learning. I heard I should talk to you. What should we do?’ What I want to be able to say is, ‘Let’s go to our website, here are a few examples of districts that have fully implemented blended learning.”


The district knows that expanding blended learning to eight schools (2015-16), 12 schools (2016-17) and giving every student his or her own computer by 2018 will be hard to swing without some significant investment.

“We have about 6,000 devices in the district right now,” Eads said. “We have about 21,000 students. So you can see we have to buy a lot more devices to get to one-to-one.”

Without another anonymous donor or an influx of grant money, the district is left with what it’s got. For now, that’s the plan.

“We’re committed to going as far as we can with the resources we have,” Eads said.

That doesn’t mean the district is blind to the future. Discussions for re-allocating money that’s already used for technology each year will begin in earnest when the District 6 Board of Education begins next year’s budget discussions within the next two months.

In addition, the district may look at securing additional grants and could ask for a mill levy override. But those are conversations for the future, district Communications Director Theresa Myers said.

The challenges for blended learning go beyond D6 borders, but those have a way of coming back around to the district.

Take software.

The students at Centennial are using free software this year. Ellis recommended that.

Asmus was on board, but he cautions his teachers not to get attached to the free software Centennial uses. After all, what if Zearn wants $50,000 next year?

That’s an “if” question, to be sure. But there are some certainties, too. Professional development, a fancy way of saying teacher training, is a must to make blended learning work.

This past summer, 216 district teachers took two professional development courses on blended learning, Branam said.

“What we need to get to is 1,100 teachers and 30 principals taking about six (courses),” Branam said. “We’ve got a good start, but we’ve got a ways to go.”