Skeptics of blended learning cite it as just another distraction from the true needs of our lowest-achieving students. Then there’s Venture Academy, a middle school in a former printing business with bright green walls and no traditional classrooms on the edge of the University of Minnesota which opened its doors in September.
Venture Academy is a personalized, blended learning middle school whose goal is to create a new model of education that empowers the most struggling students and closes the opportunity gap. Winner of a Next Generation Learning Challenges award, Venture’s central mission since its 2011 founding is to make learning student-directed.
But how does one accomplish this in lower-funded areas with less resources and manpower--and with such a diverse student population? Two-thirds of Venture’s students are English-Language learners, a quarter who receive Special Education services, and 97% qualify for free or reduced lunch.
As a board member for Venture Academy, I witness firsthand how the school focuses on three key strategies for personalizing Venture learning.
STEP 1: INVEST STUDENTS IN THEIR OWN LEARNING
At the heart of Venture’s model is a mission to ignite the passion of young people to become entrepreneurial leaders. During the school day, that means investing students through ownership of content, goals, and data.
First, Venture’s sixth and seventh graders can take two electives every day, including physical education, soccer, music and video production, Makerspace, web development and coding, and art. These small classes allow students chances to get involved in learning that interests them and begin the entrepreneurial processes of designing, creating and iterating--often using their experiences as inspiration. An example? In an art class, two sisters who have experienced homelessness are creating tie-dye socks for a shelter.
In addition, students design and pursue independent research projects that are driven by their interests. For example, in an effort to engage their Mexican-American parents in their learning, two students are completing a research project on the Mexican-American war. Meanwhile, Patrick, a Liberian refugee, was recently elected class president after wowing students with his platform that proposed getting Venture Academy to have the highest student achievement in the country.
STEP 2: PUT STUDENTS IN CONTROL OF THE LEARNING PROCESS
Venture’s personalized blended learning model makes students owners of academic goals and progress.
As Chief Learning Officer Kerry Muse explains: “[I have] put the data in my students’ hands and then engaged them in authentic conversations about where they were, where they needed to be, and how they planned to get there. I made them directly accountable for their achievement.”
In order to personalize learning so thoroughly, Venture puts the learning in the hands of the students themselves. Students and “teacher-coaches” develop “Personalized Learning Plans” that align to online dashboards; for three hours each day, students meet in communities with 55 students and three teachers to work on their individual goals. Students select recommended teacher topics and progress through the material and practice activities using their choice of online programs (like Khan Academy, Achieve3000, and iReady). At the end of the day, the students can demonstrate mastery and earn badges while tracking their own progress--and all based on their own choice.
STEP 3: SET BIG GOALS
Prior to Venture’s blended implementation, incoming sixth and seventh grade students’ scores ranged from a first grade through eighth grade level on the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) reading and math exams. And as we know, this reality of a wide-ranging student achievement spectrum is far too common for teachers in urban areas.
But at Venture, there is effort to combat this issue. Specifically, the three teacher-coaches in each community meet daily as a data team in order to use Khan and Achieve3000’s dashboards to analyze student progress. With that data in hand, they design intentional spiraled small group interventions--backwards planning at its finest.
Because coaches are able to access student data and monthly progress (streamlined by Venture’s weekly calendars dictating what state standards should be taught when), they can monitor assessments to understand who needs help on each topic. Then, they are able to support those students individually or in small groups.
Venture’s eventual “Big Goal” is that students will grow “three years” in reading and math over the course of only one year, primarily through initiating independent study projects. So where are they now?
While the school has only been open for a little over two months, Venture has wasted no time measuring its progress toward this goal. And for a brand new school, the community has already come a long way.
As of October 11, 82% of Venture students reported they felt Venture would help them reach their learning goals, 92% said they were getting the help they needed, and 95% said they would recommend Venture to a friend. And the evidence exists in the school culture, too: student behavior issues have decreased since the beginning of the school year.
Venture teachers do work long hours. However, teachers report that they are more focused on analyzing data, addressing student misconceptions, and building relationships than they were in any of their previous schools.On December 3, Venture students will take their first iReady benchmark. Venture leaders know it may or may not show that every student is on track toward making three years of growth. But like a startup, Venture is built on the entrepreneurial mindset to take risks, fail quickly and adapt constantly--all with the purpose of refining their groundbreaking model to make sure all of their students reach that goal.