Can Blended Learning Save Catholic Schools?

Can Blended Learning Save Catholic Schools?

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Catholic schools in the United States are at a crossroads.

The challenges facing many Catholic schools--low enrollment and threats to financial sustainability--put them in a position where they must close their doors unless something dramatic changes. And many have.

There are 500,000 fewer students enrolled in Catholic schools in the U.S. than there were 10 years ago. Over the last fifty years, closures have shrunk the system by more than half, from 5 million to less than 2 million students. Recent research suggests there are dire consequences for entire communities when a Catholic school closes, and there are very few signs that these trends are abating.

Some have suggested that Catholic schools need to reinvent themselves for a new era if they are to survive. This need to adapt may make Catholic schools increasingly open to becoming early adopters of blended learning in an effort to ensure their future vitality. However, Catholic schools will need to overcome significant hurdles if blended learning is to become a key driver of their renewal.

The Challenges

Catholic school systems face many hurdles that could impede the effective adoption of blended learning. Being aware of these challenges is critical to successfully implementing blended learning transitions.

First and most apparent are financial constraints. Tight budgets limit the capacity of many Catholic schools to innovate. An effective deployment of blended learning requires an investment of time, resources, and training, but Catholic schools with small administrative teams struggle to research blended learning best practices and plan an effective implementation.

The blended learning world can be bewildering when trying to get started, and schools either need to devote sufficient human resources to the task or to identify a partner organization (company, non-profit, university, etc.) to help. Both require money that the neediest Catholic schools just don’t have.

Additionally, outdated technology infrastructure and physical plants require significant upfront investments. This is especially true in K-8 schools, where computers still sit in labs and a precious few devices are re-deployed to classrooms. Catholic schools are behind the times on this front.

But there are some promising bright spots that augur well for the future. If Catholic schools can leverage their strengths and early successes, they will be an important player in the years ahead.

The Strengths and Successes

1. Catholic schools need a game change--and are well-positioned for it

Though Catholic schools in the U.S. face many challenges, as noted above, technology can represent a key variable to increase efficiency and effectiveness, and provide just the sort of change and edge that Catholic schools need to reinvent themselves.

Without the influence of district regulations, Catholic schools have local governance and a great deal of independence, allowing them to be nimble and adaptive. Perhaps more importantly, however, is that a great many Catholic schools are hungry for solutions. From many conversations with superintendents and national leaders of Catholic education, there appears to be a growing awareness that Catholic schools need to innovate or slowly fade away. Leaders need to be increasingly on the lookout for innovations and models that can lead to renewed vitality and long-term sustainability.

2. Emerging models are showing success and poised for growth

What is actually happening out there in Catholic schools with regard to blended learning? There are a few notable points of light.

Seton Education Partners, a non-profit and innovator in the Catholic ed sector, has launched the Phaedrus Initiative, helping K-8 Catholic schools transition to a blended learning model. Started in 2011, Phaedrus is now in six schools nationally, and so far, has seen promising results.

The University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE), a provider of talent and services to Catholic schools nationally, has a blended learning and school improvement model that has shown promise in its first year, 2013-2014. The ACE blended learning efforts will now support six schools in three cities in its second year.

Over in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the WINGS model of schooling--now Divine Providence Academy--is an example of how blended learning can facilitate effective multi-age classrooms, allowing schools to right-size staff and become sustainable as much smaller operations, akin to one-room schoolhouses of old. By adopting a blended, multi-age model, the school cut per-pupil costs in half and rather dramatically raised tests scores within 3 years. A handful of schools have sought to replicate the WINGS model as an approach to offering a more sustainable business model.

3. Catholic schools possess a unique vision

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Catholic schools can have a unique voice regarding the role of technology in education. Some fear that technology will be a dehumanizing force in education, replacing teachers with computers and reducing human interaction. The inadequacies of many virtual schools and blended learning implementations that rely too heavily on technology seem to reinforce these concerns.

But Catholic schools can have a distinctive voice on this matter. The goal of a Catholic education is to form the whole child towards completeness. Catholic educators can demonstrate how technology, if properly integrated, can be a tool for enhancing the holistic development of the child and the quality of student-teacher interactions. Armed with better data, teachers can do more one-on-one coaching than in traditional teacher-centered classrooms. By working at their own pace and level, students are treated with more respect and dignity.

Technology is a tool and does not replace the witness of the teacher and the essential community of faith and learning fostered within Catholic school classrooms, but if thoughtfully used, it can enhance teaching and learning.  

Why Go Blended At All?

In the end, blended learning and the emerging role of technology can offer a lot to Catholic school systems and their long term vitality. 

For early adopters, blended learning can provide an edge and help brand schools as innovative models offering a personalized approach. This cachet can help drive up enrollment, which in turn stabilizes finances. 

For small schools with limited markets, blended learning can support effective multi-age classes, allowing schools to right-size staff and become sustainable small-schools. 

But, ultimately, to really help Catholic schools, blended learning needs to be more than a marketing strategy or a financial fix. It must strengthen the quality of the product.

If we can judge from the initial successes of some early Catholic blended models, blended learning holds much promise for a marketing boost, enhanced financial flexibility, and improved educational outcomes. And if these new models continue to show strong results, look out for many more blended Catholic schools in the years to come.

Editor's Note: This article was updated to reflect correct information about Seton Education Partners' Phaedrus Initiative.

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