Smart Cities: Providence Picking Up The Pace

The Providence School District was engaged in a turnaround effort at the turn of the century. Almost 15 years later, Providence Schools continues efforts to implement an “aligned instructional system,” is hostile toward options, but is actively pursuing blended learning options. Helping to launch the the state’s model for blended learning,The Highlander Institute has been pulled deeper into collaborative efforts with Providence Schools to expand blended learning and competency based opportunities across the district.
In 2013, The Highlander Institute began working closely at Providence Career and Technical Academy, piloting Metryx as a solution for collecting career and technical performance assessment data to better drive CTE instruction across the school’s 11 pathways.
Several enterprising elementary principals in Providence, including Denis Missry-Milburn at Asa Messer Elementary and Dina Cera at Kizirian Elementary, have partnered with Highlander Institute to expand blended learning in their K-1 classrooms. These principals are using Title 1 funding to purchase iPads, Dreambox Learning software, and embedded professional development. They are receiving support from the Highlander Institute to pilot “station rotation” blended learning for math instruction in their schools.
The district has been so pleased with the math results in these schools that it’s looking to expand the math work across 11 elementary schools and also create English Language Arts (ELA) pilots in two additional schools.
Pleasant View School won the first Innovation Powered by Technology Model School Grant. Providence Business News said, “The school will use the grant for extensive professional development for teachers and to purchase equipment to create three computer labs and provide 110 laptop computers for student use.”  The blended learning plan includes an extended day, personalized learning, and flexible scheduling. A recent Providence Monthly story featured Pleasant View and their support from Rubin and Highlander.
Pleasant View has made strong academic growth thanks to a passionate principal, Dr. Gara Field. “We are proud of our steady gains over the past 3 years at Pleasant View,” says Feld. She pointed out steady NECAP growth overall, with some impressive gains in math and reading.  In September, the second model school grant went to Wakefield Hills Elementary School, in West Warwick.
After a bruising battle, high performing charter network Achievement First (AF) will open a downtown charter.  Providence Mayor Angel Taveras was one of the driving forces behind bringing AF to Rhode Island and chairs the board. They received 1,150 applications for the first 190 spots in K-1. Achievement First is using Chromebooks for student instruction in their classrooms, though have room to grow from providing tool access to true personalization.
Blackstone Valley Prep has had an incredible year researching best practice around blended learning nationally thanks to their NGLC Planning Grant. They will be launching their Blended Learning High School this fall. They received an NGLC launch grant and will be opening their doors with approximately 100 9th graders this September. They are currently exploring flipped classroom and station rotation models for running blended learning within each of their four academic classrooms.
The Highlander Charter School in Providence just submitted for an Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) launch grant for its high school. Whether it receives the grant or not the school will expand to 10th grade next year with a three tiered competency based model that utilizes a mixture of virtual instruction, face to face learning and expanded learning opportunities across RI. The Highlander Charter School received a $100,000 planning grant from NGLC to further their commitment to create a mastery based model for their blended learning high school that will have a heavy emphasis on Expanded Learning opportunities that are tied to graduation.
The Village Green Virtual Public Charter High School is a blended learning model for 9th and 10th graders, with the intention of expanding to include grades 11 and 12. “The school is renovating a historical building in Providence.  Students use desktop computers in two Learning Centers, meet in several conference-style classrooms and conduct projects in a Design Space. Principal Rob Pilkington says,  “We gut it out with 120 to 130 in attendance every day. Each kid knows the percent of the curriculum they should be through, where they are in terms of percent completion and know what their proficiency levels are. We’ve changed the dynamic between kids and adults and changed the way kids see who’s responsible for their learning. Overall, it’s a huge success.”
In March, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras launched Providence Talks, an ambitious program to advance literacy among early learners (see New York Times feature).
The Big Picture. Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor established Big Picture Learning in 1995.  The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, informally referred to as ‘the Met’,” opened in 1996 with a freshman class of 50 students–mostly ‘at-risk’ students who ‘did not fit’ in conventional schools. (The graduating class of 2000 is pictured.)
As Littky describes in The Big Picture, a 2004 ASCD book, the innovative interest-based school model is focused on educating one student at a time. Students are “assessed on their performance, on exhibitions and demonstrations of achievement, on motivation, and on the habits of mind, hand, heart, and behavior that they display – reflecting the real world evaluations and assessments that all of us face in our everyday lives.”
Radical personalization is the core innovation of the Big Picture school model–it was individual rotation model before we knew what to call it.  Their approach to internships remains a best practice.  Now in its 18th year, the Met serves nearly 900 students in four academies and anchors the Big Picture network of more than 100 schools. The network is gaining popularity in the Netherlands, Israel and Australia.
Blended Rhode Island. Last Saturday’s third annual Blended Learning Conference was a huge success. Almost 300 attendees came out to learn all about Blended Learning. This year’s conference doubled last year’s attendance. Keynote speaker, Richard Culatta EdTech director for the Department opened his speech by saying, “If every state had a Highlander Institute things would be very different in this country.” Great national vendors like TenMarks, BrightBytes, and Dreambox were in attendance along with local speakers like Paul Barrette of Smithfield and Paula Dillon of Barrington as well as national speakers like Jason Hoekstra formerly of inBloom and Margaret Roth from AnEstuary.
Shawn Rubin, Director of Technology Integration at the Highlander Institute, manages the Institute’s blended learning and technology integration professional development programs. Beyond the conference, Rubin notes continued forward movement in professional development from year to year:

  • EdUnderground is a hands-on laboratory for early adopter teachers in which they can discover, explore, create and experiment with technology integration strategies, blended learning models, and other innovative tactics using hardware, software, and maker products.  The number of EdUnderground participants doubled since last year and there are smaller EdUnderground professional learning communities popping up around Rhode Island.
  • EdTechRI offers a monthly edtech meet-up organized by teachers and meant as a way of getting teachers and products to come together around feedback and beta testing. They work with the over 300 EdTech products that exist between NYC and Boston, most of whom struggle to find real teachers to test and engage with their products.
  • With a grant from the Rhode Island Foundation, Highlander Charter School serves as a blended learning lab school. Next year they will offer tours and PD. In it’s first year the Highlander Charter School has brought 10 different teams of teachers and administrators from across New England to witness blended learning in action. Providence administrators say that it has been valuable to see  blended learning in action and speaking to Highlander Charter teachers about their model and decision making has been invaluable.
The Business Innovation Factory in partnership with the Highlander Institute launched Teachers Design for Education, through the generous support of a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant.The goal is to create an online platform that teachers can use individually or in school groups to leverage the design thinking process to solve problems they experience in their schools or districts.

Rubin reflects on the progress, saying “The real power of what we have going on in RI is that it’s all grassroots and driven from the educator side of things,” said Rubin. “We don’t yet have a strong startup community here but our educators love to collaborate around new ideas and test and tinker in any corner of the state that they can. RI’s size makes it a unique environment for educator collaboration as we have close to 50 districts and LEAs all within a 45 min drive of each other. Because of this, we have had tremendous success motivating a large number of early adopter teachers, principals and tech admins to get engaged through twitter chats, meetups and conferences.”
Lighting the Blended Learning Fuse. The above examples spurred continued expansion of blended learning into an ambitious new initiative to make Rhode Island the first fully blended learning state. They will aim to do just that through funding from The Learning Accelerator, a nonprofit dedicated to speeding and improving implementation of blended learning, in collaboration with the Highlander Institute.
The goal is to support each of Rhode Island’s 57 districts to advance their use of blended learning practices and move toward a more personalized learning experience for all public school students in Rhode Island.  This project includes three components:

  1. Fuse RI Fellowship. This past Saturday, the Highlander Institute announced the first phase of this three-part project, which is a two-year blended learning fellowship that will focus on sharing, implementing, evaluating, and scaling technology usage and blended learning in Rhode Island schools. Highlander Institute’s Fuse Fellowship applications are due on May 24th. Fuse Fellows will begin work this summer and will be partnering with their LEAs starting in the fall. .
  2. District Readiness Reports.The Highlander Institute will develop a process through which districts can assess the status of blended learning in their schools and identify appropriate next steps across a range of indicators. This will allow districts to both share best practices and facilitate cross-district partnerships.
  3. Blended Learning Open Resource Library.Highlander Institute will facilitate the sharing of resources and best practices by creating and serving as curator for a Rhode Island OER library. Through this library, the Institute will help educators make sense of blended learning support materials as well as, determine the quality of resources and products. The Institute will track resource usage to better understand how all blended learning resources are being leveraged across the state.

State of affairs. In 2008, the state legislature gave Rhode Island mayors the ability to authorize charter schools. The Rhode Island Mayoral Academies  includes Blackstone Valley and Achievement First (mentioned above) serving 1200 kids. Director Mike Magee said, “We are building out two approved networks to over 4000 kids with more to come in new regions of the state.”
Under Commissioner Deborah Gist, Rhode Island has put in place many new policies and initiatives that will improve teaching and learning for years to come. Since 2009 and aided by the $75 million Race to the Top grant and the $50 million Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge grant, Rhode Island has made real progress in Common Core adoption, improving educator preparation and development, and expanding quality options for students. Gist is the Vice Chair of Chiefs for Change, a group of forward leaning state superintendents.
RIDE is in the midst of the 2-year Wireless Classroom Initiative project, which will bring wireless Internet access to every classroom in the state.  In October, RIDE held the second Innovation Powered by Technology statewide conference focused on “Cultivating Quality.”  The RIDE 2014 report to the General Assembly notes progress on virtual and blended learning.
RIDE developed and implemented a set of Virtual Learning Math Modules, specifically designed to provide additional support to help high-school students improve achievement in mathematics and be eligible to earn a diploma.
Wrap.  Providence struggles with historical urban challenges and has been slow to embrace a portfolio approach and an innovation agenda. Big Picture has more influence in Israel than in their hometown. Despite opposition, new schools and the capacity of mayors to authorize will change the landscape of the city and state.
The blended learning leadership of Highlander and Pleasant View laid the groundwork for a statewide digital conversion–a great case study for the importance of models, guidance, and a little support. With help from local and national funders and advisors the documented progress in Providence over the last 12 months is remarkable and encouraging.
The Smart Cities blog series catalogs innovations in learning in America’s great cities.  We’re writing a book about what we’re learning–and you can help. Thanks to Shawn Rubin and Mary Ryerse for work on this post.  
BrightBytes is a portfolio company of Learn Capital.  The Learning Accelerator, NGLC, and Dreambox Learning are Advocacy Partners.

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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