How to Create a Blended High School

Last week I visited a team planning a new high school, a team planning to reinvigorate a high school, and operators of a couple high performing networks. They were all positive about the emerging opportunities of blended learning but all had similar questions about models, platforms, and content.
Following are 10 tips for launching a blended high school or phasing blended strategies into an existing school.
1. Start with goals. What will grads know and be able to do?  Good schools start with good goals. I like the goal statements from Danville Schools, a small district south of Lexington:

  • POWERFUL LEARNING EXPERIENCES: Every Danville student will consistently experience classroom work and activities that are meaningful, engaging, and relevant, connecting to students’ interests and/or previous knowledge.
  • GLOBAL PREPAREDNESS: Every Danville student will be immersed each day in learning opportunities intentionally designed to develop skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, and data analysis, enabling them to compete globally.
  • GROWTH FOR ALL: Every Danville student, regardless of starting point, will achieve at least one year of academic progress in reading and mathematics each school year.
  • EXCELLENCE IN COMMUNICATION: Every Danville student will be provided regular and multiple opportunities to demonstrate learning through verbal and written communications, visual and performing arts, and the use of multiple forms of technology.
  • AN INFORMED & INVOLVED COMMUNITY: The Danville Schools will establish effective two-way communication, in various forms, with all stakeholders in the community. (See Getting Smart feature.)

2. Create a shared vision of powerful learning experiences. Common Core State Standards are a great opportunity to have a conversation about the kinds of learning experiences young people deserve. For an outline of 15 student learning roles see How Digital Learning Contributes to Deeper Learning.
Real college and career readiness requires writing across the curriculum–maybe 500 words a day–and publishing (not just turning in work) on a regular basis to blogs and newspapers.
Students should have a chance to self blend with access to every AP course, a wide variety of foreign languages, and exposure to careers of interest.
3. Sweat the culture.  The kids set the tone in high school unless there is a strong intentional culture.
Launch Expeditionary Learning Charter School starts the day with Crew, a 30 minute advisory period where they practice and talk about the shared Habits of Heart and Mind central to the Launch culture: accountability, craftsmanship, wonder, mindfulness, and compassion. The Habits are integrated into the culture and every learning experience at Launch. (See Getting Smart feature.)
In Mooresville, North Carolina It’s Not About the Machine, It’s About Heart and, It’s All About Culture at Acton Academy.
4. Measure what matters. Build a dynamic assessment and competency-tracking capacity using MasteryConnect. Make end of course exams available on demand.
When developing goals and metrics, don’t forget character development and social emotional learning. Developing habits of success and an entrepreneurial mindset is The Missing Core of K-12.
The Summit Public Schools college and career readiness system will track growth trajectory of knowledge, skills, and success habits against college goals ( I don’t know of anyone else thinking about goal-focused tracking on these dimensions). Students falling short of their planned growth trajectory, on any front, will see a big red warning system. (See Getting Smart feature.)
5. Adopt, adapt, or develop a school model that will create powerful learning experiences, leverage your strengths and help you reach your goals. Districts/networks with relatively high performance should consider phasing in a rotation model starting with a subject with strong leadership–perhaps an area where teachers are using flipped classroom strategies.
Read up on high school rotation blends including Carpe Diem, Summit Denali and the NGLC Profiles (and this three part series: Next-Gen Models Attack Problems, Leverage Opportunities, Next-Gen Learning Models Blend Tech & Experiences, Next-Gen Models Break New Ground, Promote System Redesign. If a large percentage of students are below grade level, consider blended systems like Read 180 and Math 180.
Schools serving over-aged and under-credited students or those connected to technical training, like Career Path High, should use a flex model to optimize personalization, schedule and location flexibility, and pathway options. In most cases, it’s best to run a flex model on a comprehensive learning platform.
See 10 Reasons Every District Should Open a Flex School. Nexus Lansing is a new flex model charter school. For a district version, check out iPrep: The Miami Flex.
6. Ask students to wrestle with big problems. Big blocks offer the opportunity for personalization within heterogeneous groupings. Big History is great content for a science/humanities block.
At Reynoldsburg eSTEM, three capstone options are offered in triple blocks potentially incorporating core courses such as ethics and technical writing, technical writing, an AP credit and/or college credit bearing courses like political science and microeconomics, an internship, and a undergraduate-style research projects handful of projects. Imagine high school seniors (instead of coasting) taking a super block focused on energy, environment, and the economy.
The Shift From Cohorts to Competency can be particularly challenging at the high school level given transcripts and graduation requirements. Some schools will reduce the Common Core to a checklist of micro-standards.  Track competencies but don’t miss the opportunity to ask big questions and provoke deeper learning.
7. Pick a platform and content.  It’s easiest to run flex model schools using a comprehensive platform (content plus LMS) like Egenuity, GradPoint, and Flipswitch.
The Alliance for College Ready Schools in LA developed BLAST classrooms, a three station rotation model including online learning, small group instruction, and collaborative learning, in partnership with Education Elements.
Students at ten Houston High Schools will receive a laptop for the next school year (see Houston High School Students Get Laptops Next Year) and they’ll be using the free social learning platform Edmodo that makes it easy to build and share content libraries.
The most innovative platform I’ve seen this year is Buzz in Detroit. The EAA built it on Brainhoney from Agilix and populated the innovative competency-based model with Compass Odyssey.
Check out the growing universe of Open Educational Resources from Gooru Learning,,, and OpenEd (see 6/25 feature).
8. Blend your staffing plan. Check out the extended reach strategies at Opportunity Culture.  Phase in differentiated staffing(different levels) and distributed staffing (a few remote teachers). A recent blog outlined 10 Ways Smart Cities Develop & Support Teachers.
Summit Public Schools has a thoughtful competency-based  four steps teacher development system that utilizes multiple forms of evidence.
9. Pick the right device.  As discussed in the Blended Learning Implementation Guide, don’t even think about buying student devices until you’ve set goals, debated student learning experiences, and developed a school model that leverage great teaching with technology.
LAUSD decided on iPads last week–a popular choice these days but it’s not a great production device for high school students.  Maine picked HP laptops. Houston High School Students Will Get Windows Laptops Next Year.  A growing number of Districts Are Chosing Chromebooks Over Tablets.
10. Engage, improve, & iterate. We’re in the early innings of the shift to personal digital learning. New tools and new schools are being developed every month. The best leaders can do is to lead a conversation that exposes the school community to opportunity and yields temporary agreements that enables schools to iterate up from a sound design.
Disclosures: Edmodo and MasteryConnect are Learn Capital Portfolio companies where Tom is a partner. CompassLearning is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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