Blended Learning

Blended learning pilot means a new role for teachers in 16 Memphis schools

Brad Osbourn presents a unit involving Frankenstein

At the Shelby County district building on Wednesday, school board members were digging deep into 10th grade English language arts—and the questions at the core of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—as they were stepped through a model lesson of a new blended learning program, in which much of students’ work and learning takes place on a tablet computer.

Brad Osborn, the vice president of business development for education publishing company Pearson, pulled up a reading lesson and showed the sorts of screens and questions students would encounter after reading Frankenstein.

“We keep hearing how robots are getting smarter and they’re going to rule the world,” said Osborn. “So we want to ask our kids, what does it mean to be human?”

“Well, what do you think?” Osborne said to Shelby County Schools board chair Kevin Woods. “What does it mean?”

Shelby County Schools is looking to blended learning to help schools reach an ambitious set of goals that includes having 80 percent of students graduating from high school college- and career-ready by 2025. Next year, a new blended learning program will be piloted in 16 schools, including some of the district’s neediest and most promising: Those receiving students from schools that are closing, and schools in the district’s turnaround-focused “Innovation Zone.” District officials say the program represents a major shift in how teachers will teach and how students will learn.

On Tuesday, the Memphis board of education voted to approve a $5.5 million, three-year contract to purchase the devices. Each student and teacher in the participating schools will receive a device that they can take home.     

On Wednesday, board members got a preview of what the curriculum in those 16 schools will look like. Representatives of Pearson Publishing, which has a one-year contract with the district to provide curriculum and support, presented slides and answered questions about how the program will work in Memphis.

Cleon Franklin, the head of virtual education for Shelby County Schools, said that while people often focus on the devices in conversations about digital learning, the real change is in the curriculum and how students will be learning.

Unlike previous versions of digital textbooks or school-based curricula, the Pearson program means students will receive most of their English and math instruction from videos and guided questions on the digital tablet itself. Teachers shift from being the “sage on the stage,” solely responsible for explaining content laid out in a textbook, to facilitators of what Pearson described as a workshop model for learning.

larry singer from Pearson at Memphis board
Larry Singer from Pearson at Memphis board

Competitive Application

Thirty-nine schools applied for the program, which might eventually be used in classrooms around the city, said Franklin. Interested principals had to guarantee, among other things, that all staff were on board with the program and would participate in professional development. Schools pledged to be open to sporadic visits from the virtual education department, to host parent trainings, and to create common spaces where students can use devices.

Seven of the pilot schools are receiving students from schools that will be shuttered next year as part of an effort to consolidate resources and improve academics. During a series of heated meetings protesting the closings, superintendent Dorsey Hopson II said the blended learning pilot was an example of the district improving academic offerings for students affected by the closings.

Schools and teachers are touting their participation: An image of a laptop and announcement about the program is featured on the homepage of Lowrance Elementary School, one participating school. Karsaunder Carson, a teacher at Caldwell-Guthrie, another participating school, said, “We are excited about that.”

Shelby County’s Franklin said that the district intentionally chose a mix of schools that had “high capacity” to implement the program—their teachers are already using technology, for instance—and those that had less experience. Since the district eventually hopes to have blended learning in more of its schools, “we wanted to learn the tough lessons now,” he said.

Preparing for change

The program board members saw Wednesday includes lessons aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Schools will use the program mainly for math and English language arts, though readings include history and science features, Franklin said.

Shelby County board members examine devices at Tuesday meeting.
Shelby County board members examine devices at Tuesday meeting.


In a sample elementary school math lesson, students would watch a video laying out a problem involving students opening and shutting doors in a specific pattern. Students were asked what strategy they would use to determine how many doors were open before actually answering. Students had constant access to a glossary feature, but could also use non-digital tools like “counters” as part of their strategy. 

Lessons like that one might be done at home, with students then coming to school with questions about the content—an approach known as the “flipped classroom.”

At school, students might rotate between a computer station, a group-work station, and a teacher-led station.

The curriculum is differentiated: For instance, in a lesson on Huckleberry Finn, advanced readers might probe into symbolism on their devices while struggling readers focused on comprehension.

In upper grades, district officials said, students might move through courses at their own pace. In lower grades, students can choose between different lessons or readings focusing on the same skills.

All the while, teachers have access to students’ screens and information. Teachers can notice where each student is struggling, or even turn students’ devices off if they are off-track.

“It’s a new instructional model: Instead of the teacher in front and kids absorbing, the teacher manages a set of activities,” Singer said.

Franklin said that Shelby County Schools had examined a blended learning program in Huntsville, Ala., and had had concerns that, in some instances, when students got things wrong, the digital curriculum did not provide sufficient feedback for students to get the correct answer without the teacher being present.

He said the new program addresses that concern. Assessments are embedded throughout the program. But while teachers will have immediate access to how students did, students receive coaching from the program to help explain what they missed.

Pearson also helped design questions for the PARCC exam, which Tennessee students are likely to take in 2015-16. Singer said that means students using the blended learning program will be prepared for assessments they’ll face down the line. “People say that good test takers have an advantage. In Memphis, they won’t,” Singer said.

Potential issues

Franklin said that the devices, and Pearson’s virtual learning program, were unanimously selected by a working group of teachers and principals.

In the Wednesday meeting with Pearson, board members Chris Caldwell and Kevin Woods asked what issues might come up as the program is implemented.

Singer said the district should be prepared to address schools struggling with technological issues; for teachers who are less-than-enthused about the new program; and for parents who are uncertain about the new technology. “It’s a change management issue,” he said, pointing out that any new initiative is often met with resistance.

Franklin said that the district had already ensured pilot schools would have enough bandwidth. District officials said teachers would be taught by other teachers, so they could “speak the same language.”

As for theft and hacking issues that have plagued other one-to-one device programs, Franklin and Singer both downplayed concerns. “The devices have a market value of zero,” as they are only operable by students, Franklin told the board.

Still, Franklin said that the district had decided not to give students backpacks or carrying cases for the devices so they would not be easily identified as having devices.

Board members were enthusiastic, especially about the idea of students guiding each other through group work. Caldwell said that the initiative might preview a move away from textbooks for the district as a whole.

“With this, everyone’s a learner and everyone’s a teacher,” Caldwell said. “It’s an environment that trains you for jobs you’re doing.”

As for what makes a human, board chair Woods cracked a joke before saying that at least part of it is humor.

At least in this presentation, the devices cracked no jokes.

The following schools will pilot the blended learning program:  

Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary

Cherokee Elementary

Douglas K-8

Fairley Elementary

Ford Road Elementary

Hamilton Middle

Highland Oaks Middle

Levi Elementary

Lowrance K-8

Lucy Elementary

Maxine Smith STEAM Academy

Melrose High

Raineshaven Elementary

Riverview K-8

Riverwood Elementary

Sherwood Middle


Contact Jackie Zubrzycki at [email protected]

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Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.