Milpitas Unified School District

Milpitas Unified School District

Milpitas is a public school district at the very edge of the San Francisco Bay Area, home to 10,000 students and a unique approach to going blended.

At a Glance

Location: Milpitas, CA Type: Public
# of Students: 9,782 Grades Served: K-12 % FRL: 30%


In less than two years, the Milpitas Unified School District has become a standout example of transformation in public schools. Most importantly: it got there thanks to the plans created by its teachers and a killer change management process.

After a three-month design process in the spring of 2012, Milpitas teachers pitched their new school models to the Superintendent, his executive cabinet and the teachers’ union. The result as of fall 2013: two-thirds of elementary school classrooms are now implementing blended learning, 3,500 Chromebooks have been dispersed across the district, and data points are being collected on 7,000 students every day with iReady software.

While schools continue to iterate their models, most elementary schools are using some combination of large learning labs for digital curriculum and project-based learning activities, as well as rotating students through computer and non-computer-based activities in class.

In the coming years, the district is hoping to find evidence that demonstrates efficacy of a blended learning approach. It hopes to use this evidence to make better decisions as they adapt and change their models in the future. 

Approach to Teaching and Learning

What matters most to Milpitas educators when it comes to learning is ownership and time. Teachers and administrators believe learning happens best when students have ownership of their own learning, and can take as much time as they need to master specific concepts.

Students are encouraged to direct their own learning in class, making decisions such as which activity to do, what approach to take, or whom to ask for help. Teachers are both curators and facilitators. Their main responsibilities are to curate resources and learning software, while also facilitating learning opportunities for the whole group when needed.

Milpitas is trying to shift perceptions around traditional approaches to time in which time is fixed and learning is variable. They are currently trying to implement a blended learning model that allows students to take as much or little time as they need to master a specific concept. 

Approach to Technology

“Technology just needs to be a part of the environment… we want it to be just like a pencil and paper, just part of the environment to learn.”

--- Cary Matsuoka, Superintendent

Milpitas educators see technology as a tool that allows students to learn more independently and to be at different spots in the curriculum. They look to tech that allows their learners to be more flexible in where they learn, how they learn, and when they learn.

The district administration not only look for tools that allow learners to be flexible, but also for tools that are flexible themselves. The district focuses solely on cloud-based technology so that students are not tied to any particular device. Matsuoka adds, “By keeping student work in the cloud, their learning environment is with them everywhere.”

“In any conversation with a provider we ask, one: ‘Are you cloud based?’ - and two - ‘Can you run on a Chromebook?’ Otherwise, we won’t look at you,” says Matsuoka. 

Example Learning Environments

Ms. Alison Elizando, 4th Grade Class, Burnette Elementary School

The district lets Elizondo take the lead on creating her blended rotational model, even allowing her to dictate hardware requirements. She ended up with a rather fine-tuned setup: 18 Chromebooks and two iPads, with access to Khan Academy and EduCreations. Elizondo developed the model with a single goal in mind: free the teacher up for more one-on-one coaching time. Along the way, she is training her students to teach themselves, focusing on skills like goal-setting, progress-tracking and checking for mastery.

To keep students meaningfully occupied as she coaches, Elizondo crafted four stations, with students spending 20 minutes at each in a continuous cycle. The nature and number of stations evolved last year as a result of Elizondo's intuition. “Kids would get bored just doing Khan [Academy] for 80 minutes,” she says.

In one station, students pair up, identify the most advanced math concept that they have both mastered on Khan Academy, and together create a tutorial for that concept on Educreations. In another, they use Khan Academy to push forward their mastery, racking up "Energy Points" and badges, which Elizondo celebrates with gusto. In a third, students create rigorous math problems reflecting the concepts that they have recently grasped. A fourth has them working on advanced performance tasks in groups, to practice transference. Read more details here.

Weller Elementary School

As of fall 2013, Weller Elementary is equipped with a brand new 130-student learning lab filled with computers. Classrooms are also equipped with a set of Chromebooks. At the beginning of the 2013 school year, students rotated into the lab twice a day in mixed-grade groups for 35-minute sessions on iReady digital curriculum. One certified teacher and three coaches were on hand to support students as they study.

However, after evaluating the progress for teachers and students, the school found a big disconnect between the teachers delivering instruction and what the kids were learning on the software. Also, the physical disconnect between the learning lab and classroom exacerbated the gap.

As of spring 2014, Weller is focused solely on in-class rotations. Within classrooms, teachers use a rotational model: the 34 students in a sixth grade math class are split into four groups. One group takes notes, others watch Khan Academy videos, while others work on group projects. The teacher coaches students in another group. I-Ready is incorporated into their rotations at different times throughout the day. 

Technology Ingredients + Implementation

Recipe For Instruction


  • Who: K-8th graders
  • For What: To practice reading and math skills, and to develop a baseline of data across the district. 60 min once a day, for content and assessment
  • How: Students spend 60 minutes a day once a day on the tool, 30 minutes for English and 30 minutes for math. In some schools it’s done in large computer labs. Students transition in and out of class to attend. In other schools it is done through a station-rotation model where students rotate through a station once a day and focus on the tool.
  • Why: The district began using Compass Learning for English Language Arts instruction in 2012. “The software was average and the data extraction was terrible,” says Matsuoka. The district moved to iReady because it aligned to traditional math content but still focused on adaptive component for both math and reading. They also found the data-reporting component to be better than the others that they tried.

Recipe for Infrastructure


  • Who: 1:1 in high school, 3:1 in elementary and middle School
  • For What: In high school, the device is used for students to manage and produce their work in every class. In elementary and middle Schools the laptops are used in stations or in computer labs for specific computer-based curriculum or activities.


  • Who: All teachers and administrators
  • For What: Tracking student data.

School Loop

  • Who: All students, families, and staff
  • For What: Tracking attendance.

Implementation Playbook

How They Fund: Milpitas boldly proposed a $95 million bond to pay for remodeling the school spaces, technology integration, and the technology itself. Thebond passed by 64% of the voters in June 2012.

Class Size: Initially, the district began experimenting with larger class sizes at Weller Elementary. There are 36 students in each class, with several rotating in and out of the lab at any given time to reduce the immediate number of students in class. However, teachers reported frustration with having too many kids to support socially and emotionally. The school is now reducing its number from 36 back down to 25. The class size reduction will be supported through California’s Local Control Funding Formula budget increase.

Staffing: By choosing technology with the most efficient implementation and configuration, the district has been able to keep their IT department at the same size throughout their experiments in blended learning. Most supported tech is handled through a help-ticket system, where support is delivered to teachers upon request.

The district has experimented with learning coaches to support learning within large computer labs. However as of spring 2014, it is re-evaluating its decision to focus on class-size reduction with one teacher per class.

Data: Teachers use data from I-Ready to better create groupings of students for their classrooms, however, this has yet to happen consistently across schools. Teachers are working with administrators to create a common planning time to meet as a team, examine data, and identify which students are falling behind.

I-Ready provides teachers with classroom level data about who is high, middle, or low performing. However, teachers find it difficult to look at an individual student profile. Teachers want the ability to disaggregate by filters, such as English-language learners, which they are unable to do.


District administrators are looking to see the impact of their various models on a student’s skills and knowledge in literacy and math. They look for impact in MAP assessments and in the future will look to Smarter Balanced data for evidence.

However, the administration is also looking for ways to measure creativity, communication, critical thinking, and collaboration. In the future, they hope to help students create a public facing portfolio that demonstrates their growth in these areas. 

Lessons Learned Q&A

Reflections from Milpitas Superintendent Cary Matsuoka.

Q What do you see as your organization’s strengths and how have they translated to blended learning?

A: It has been very satisfying to see the vision of blended learning happen in Milpitas. I have been leading as an administrator for 17 years, my 8th as superintendent, and maybe there is something to the notion that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to finally master a craft! It is deeply satisfying to watch the response of our teachers as they adapt their practice to take advantage of new tools and technology.

It was my goal to help Milpitas become a more nimble and innovative organization and we are making progress. I feel like we are on our way to becoming a learning organization for the 21st Century.

Q Is there a particular approach that you took that helped you move implementation along?

A: Three frameworks come to mind that helped us implement so quickly – design thinking, defined autonomy, and circles of communication. The mindset and protocol of design thinking is becoming a way of changing, testing, and prototyping new ideas in our district. The bias towards action is deeply needed in education.

Second, defined autonomy is a blend of providing the key design assumptions around a new piece of work and letting a group of people figure out their way to a solution. The assumptions we agreed to back in spring 2012 were:

  • Create a more student-centered learning environment, which has evolved to a more customized learning environment.
  • Technology is an integrated part of this learning environment
  • Data should be collected, analyzed, and used to evaluate the quality of learning and inform teachers about how to meet the needs of students
  • Flexible use of time, space, and grouping of students

Then we equipped school-based design teams with the basics of design thinking, gave them space to dream and create a model, and then fast-tracked pilot implementations.

Third, with any work that involves complexity, politics, or large groups of people, we apply the test of “circles of communication” to the execution plan. The process involves thinking through who needs to hear the plan first, then the next layer out, and sometimes a third ring of stakeholders. This discipline forces you to think through communication documents and tools, the right order of sharing the information, and helps you communicate with some groups that you might not have thought about. When done well, people feel informed and included – skip a step or a key group, and you’ll spend even more time cleaning up communication. Not communicating can even sabotage an entire initiative. I had some great training and support from a communications expert (Terily Finders) from an education law firm.

Q What challenges have you encountered along the way?

A: Trying to innovate with an understaffed district leadership team requires large doses of stamina and hard work. It has been very difficult to keep up with all the communication needs as we move quickly. Once the novelty of technology and blended learning wears off, you discover that implementing with fidelity to a model is hard work.

The educational software on the market is good, but not great. We dream of a fully integrated LMS.

Q What key lessons have you learned that guide you moving forward?

A: Networking, reading, learning from others got this work started (our first field trip was to HTH in San Diego in spring 2012) and we need to continue to network and be in community with other early practitioners in the blended learning space.

I wish we had thought about program evaluation much earlier, but we didn’t discover that need until year two. We are adding the MAP assessment at two of our schools this year.

Design thinking is a super important organizational principle to move an organization. That must also be matched up with the disciplines of traditional strategic planning, a focus on priorities, and the use of 90-day plans.

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