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Village Green Virtual: Rhode Island's Experiment With Blended Learning

U.S. News and World Report
March 9, 2015

By The Hechinger Report 

PROVIDENCE, R.I.—Destanie Matias is deep into trigonometric ratios, reviewing the concepts of elevation and depression before she prepares to take a unit test. Hovering over her left shoulder is her math teacher, Maeve Murray.

The two are conferring quietly in a spacious computer lab, home to 50 black desktop machines, about half of which are being used by students. But they might as well be alone. Nearly everyone is wearing earbuds, focused on their own screens.

Murray and Destanie discuss whether the 16-year-old feels prepared to take the online test. Murray has been monitoring Destanie’s progress via a tablet she carries with her, so she knows her student has mastered the material. But the timing is up to Destanie.

They agree that Destanie will take the test after lunch. When she does, she will be the only student to take that particular test on this particular Friday. In fact, that’s the whole point of Destanie’s school, Village Green Virtual, a public charter school in Rhode Island that opened in September 2013 with a mission to “personalize instruction” for every student.

“I can do it at my own pace,” said Destanie, who enjoys math and is ahead of schedule with her trigonometry lessons. “And if I don’t do well, I can go back and review my mistakes and take the test again.”


Village Green is at the forefront of Rhode Island’s bid to expand “blended learning,” a combination of online courses with teacher-led classroom instruction. The tiny state has set out to be the first in the nation to integrate computer-based education into all of its 296 public schools.

Being a pioneer is a high-risk endeavor. And it’s messy. After some flawed assumptions in its first year, Village Green has already made a number of changes to its physical layout, class schedule and staffing. The faculty, students and parents know that their school is being scrutinized by education officials, teacher union leaders and school districts, both within Rhode Island and beyond. As data on student learning accumulates with the school’s growth, Village Green’s performance will serve as either an exemplar or a cautionary tale, as more and more schools in Rhode Island – and across the country – embrace blended learning.

When Robert Pilkington, the school’s founder and superintendent, pitched the Village Green Virtual concept to the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, he thought the school would emulate Carpe Diem, a blended learning charter school company that operates schools in several states. But after he and Rochelle Baker, Village Green’s chief of operations and admissions, visited a Carpe Diem school in Indianapolis, they changed their minds.

“We saw what we didn’t want,” Baker said. They were turned off by Carpe Diem’s teacher-to-student ratio, which ranges from 1 to 35 to 1 to 50, depending on the school.

Village Green copied Carpe Diem’s bullpen layout for student workstations, its use of Edgenuity, a computer platform that provides the online subject matter and video lessons, and an office-style atmosphere.

Village Green Virtual math teacher and learning center coordinator Bianca Toth talks with sophomore Hector Nieves, 16, of Lincoln, R.I. At left is sophomore Julio Sosa, 16, of Central Falls, R.I., and at right is sophomore Francheska Rodriguez, 17, of Providence, R.I.
Village Green Virtual math teacher and learning center coordinator Bianca Toth talks with sophomore Hector Nieves, 16.
But Village Green’s teacher-student ratio is 1 to 12. Midway through the school’s first year, Pilkington had to hire three more teachers. He’d underestimated how much shepherding and one-on-one attention the students needed, and quickly found the 1 to 17 ratio he’d budgeted for was insufficient.

“We’ve found that teachers are critical, and, in fact, we need more of them than we originally thought,” he said. “This kind of virtual school is not an effective personnel-reduction strategy.”

Village Green Virtual looks and feels nothing like other high schools in Rhode Island. Wedged between a convenience store and a burrito shop, the school occupies four floors of a narrow office building in downtown Providence. Instead of classrooms, students spend most of their day working independently in computer labs, each workstation separated by a low partition similar to those found in insurance or financial companies. Instead of a cafeteria, students eat in “Hot City Café,” a corporate-style lunchroom. The school assigns no homework and allows students to select the subjects they wish to study online each day.