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Thumb_img_0351222 Mary Jo Madda ·

Q&A with KIPP Empower Principal Mike Kerr

How edtech helped one school gain the highest API score in Los Angeles

Edtech in the City of Angels has taken quite a few punches over the past months. The recent iPad roll-out has been widely critiqued. Rumors are flying about whether LA Unified Superintendent John Deasy has plans to resign by February 2014.

In the midst of all this, however, an edtech implementation success story rises out of the ashes: KIPP Empower Academy, a Los Angeles charter school founded in 2010, recently gained status as the highest API-rated school in LAUSD.

But here’s the twist--KIPP Empower was founded as a fully blended school. And since 2010, the standardized test results have been quite positive. I sat down with Principal Mike Kerr to discuss blended learning, his thoughts about the potential for edtech, and how other schools might learn from both his triumphs and tribulations:


KIPP Empower recently came out with the success of attaining an Academic Performance Index score of 991, which is incredibly impressive. I’m curious to talk to you first about blended learning implementation that you’ve done. What are the details of blended learning at KIPP Empower, and what major changes have taken place over the last couple of years?  

KIPP Empower Academy adopted a blending learning model because the State of California cut quasi-instruction funding for new chartered schools [in 2010]. We lost about $100,000 for a cohort of 100 students. We decided to adopt the blending learning model because we felt that it will allow us to preserve what our model was calling for, and at the core of our model, we are unabashedly about small group instruction. To center instruction around small groups meant making sure that teachers are working with it at their level and can, again, personalize the learning for the students.

We felt that by having 50 laptops in the classrooms, it freed our teachers to continue to have those small groups, even though we have dramatically increased our classes of 20 to 28 where the savings worked for us. That’s sort of the essence of how this came about. You can divide a class in half--half the kids with an art teacher in a small group working, and then we have the other half of the kids on a computer doing a sketching lesson. I mean, it’s just magical to watch the kids engaged with that--learning how to take ownership of their own learning.

It definitely seems that you want to ensure that small groups focus. How did you bring the teachers along with the program?

One of the biggest challenges that teachers face is differentiating their lesson, and differentiating their learning to underscore the need to evolve the kid in the classroom. So we show how technology can help enable them to differentiate their instruction, to work with their kids in smaller groups and learn to work with their kids at a more personalized level. Teachers get the chance to work with their students on a more intimate level than they had before. They get to know their kids more deeply.

And how do you think these changes contributed to such a high API test score?

We know that having a strong school culture is important--a positive, achievement-oriented school. Our kids have physical education every day. They have art every day. They are getting a really well-balanced education. A state test is just a starting point, not the end point for us. We want to push the odds and have our kids ready for the different jobs they’re going to face in a highly competitive world.

I don’t want the teachers to have spent their day focusing on what we call the “low-hanging fruit”--things that are really easy to teach or really easy to understand, basic skills type stuff. [Our teachers] are here to teach kids. The role of technology in this, again, is to free up teachers to work with small groups and further student learning.

For example, we use Achieve 3000. Achieve 3000 is a sectioned reading program that our kids use in second grade on up that challenges their thinking with current events at their reading level. Another program we use is ST Math, which can provide a conceptual framework that really allows our students to deeply understand the concept beyond what they’re doing with their teachers. Again, we’re very strategic on what we’re using technology for. We further the students’ learning while helping them go above and beyond what they’re doing in the classroom.

Throughout these process, have there been any lessons that you’ve learned where you see room for either more experimentation with blended learning or improvement for the years to come? Give us a few key strategies for implementation.

There’s a lot of things that the school needs to flesh out before the implementation can take place. And I’ve seen schools that say, okay, well, we’re going to have laptops in the classrooms. Or we’re going to have some implementation, but without a clear plan as to how it’s going to be a part of their strategic vision to improve education for their school. So the moral lesson on that [is], once you can be intentional about the use of technology, it can be useful for many different things. 

First, [in terms of strategies], for those teachers that are technologically un-savvy or that might be hesitant, I say, anyone can do it. I think that classroom management is a key area that often gets overlooked, but it’s really critical to our students’ learning. Secondly, it is great that we can get our teachers to work and form our groups, but it comes down to their work with students in small groups. If teachers can understand the importance of classroom management and strategically use the small group plan for high quality instruction, then they can use technology in ways that further the learning.

So are there any future plans or programs that you envision that you’ll adopt?

Coding--that’s one area that we saw as a need for our kids and feel we’re right for. One tweak that we’ve made--we’re starting a coding program with our third graders, because learning how to write code prepares them for high tech jobs of tomorrow, if they so choose to go down that path. The coding program that we’re using for our third graders is called Tynker, and then we also use Scratch.

Now, Empower is one school within a greater KIPP system. What do you feel these changes in API scores mean for blended learning throughout the entire KIPP system? And have you seen blended learning at other schools?

As of right now, the concept of blended learning has spread throughout KIPP, and I know we have a blended school in Chicago called “KIPP Create” and a middle school in New York City that’s called “KIPP Washington Heights”. A lot of folks keep coming to our workshops that we lead, checking up on what learning can help their schools.

There’s a lot of great things that are happening all across the country with scholars and public schools. They’re focusing on what’s going to be best for kids and putting the interest of the children as their primary focal point. IDEA Public Schools have done a lot of that work in Texas, FirstLine in New Orleans, Aspire in California, and Achievement First in the Northeast.

But not every school is like that. Some might come up against administrators or central office employees that don’t feel comfortable with blended learning. At the end of the day, how would you argue for blended learning as a practice?

Many folks will assume that because our students are using laptops during the day, that they are sitting idle for the whole day--that we’re harming children. But look at our kindergarten students, for example. They spend only about 50 minutes of their day, total, on a laptop. At the most, it’s only 15 percent of the day that we’re strategically using the technology in this way. Focusing on technology and being intentional about its uses to further students’ learning does not mean that you’re harming children. It does not mean that you are killing teachers’ jobs.  It does not mean that you are undercutting education. I argue that in fact, it’s building upon the natural curiosities of students. They’re now able to be engaged in content more deeply and in ways they wouldn’t otherwise be doing so.

If [technology] can help more kids, drive education, and help level the playing field for students in a society where the schools are unequal and we have an unjust educational system, then I am happy to know that Empower takes a part in that.


About the Author

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Mary Jo writes and heads up the INSTRUCT newsletter for EdSurge. Previously, she taught middle school math/science. Most recently, she served as an Education Entrepreneurship Fellow at the Harvard Innovation Lab. Email: maryjo@edsurge.com

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