Blended learning stories: A systems-based approach to growing all students
By: Anne Bannister & Christine Lowak
Photography by: Lauren Reed
Our collection of Blended Learning Stories shines a light on the work of the second cohort of Raising Blended Learners districts. Each district receives professional development, financial support, and tailored coaching. From there, district journeys diverge based upon their determination of their unique needs, opportunities, and goals. Just as a blended learning classroom is personalized, so too is a district’s vision and plan.
In this story, we highlight the learning journey of the pilot teachers and campus leader at Hook Elementary in Stephenville ISD.
“It’s Spotlight Friday! Let me hear you.” The students of Brittany Magin’s fourth-grade math class erupt into applause and shouts of encouragement to each other. The classroom is illuminated by a disco ball and the students dance in their seats along to Kidz Bop cover songs.
“When you hear your name, I want you to come to the front of the room because we’re celebrating growth today! What was our goal to be on Spotlight Friday?” Magin asks her class.
“Thirty!” Her students call out in response.
“Thirty points growth since the beginning of the year and look at this amazing growth boys and girls.” One at a time, as students hear their names, they are met with cheers and fist bumps celebrating their academic growth. On this particular day in mid-October, the cheers are the loudest for a student who has met his growth target for the first time this year.
This 15-minute celebration is a weekly ritual Magin started at the beginning of the year in connection with the district’s year-two implementation of blended learning. Through the Raising Blended Learners Initiative, Stephenville ISD’s leadership team set out to shift from a district data culture focused on achievement to one focused on growth. Magin’s classroom is a testament to this transformation.
Meet Stephenville ISD
When you think of cowboys and the cowboy way of life, most people think of rugged individualism and persistence. Stephenville, Texas, nestled in the open country between Abilene and Dallas-Fort Worth, prides itself on being the “Cowboy Capital of the World.” Home to Tarleton State University, it feels like a small, welcoming community of self-reliant individuals always willing to lend a helping hand and who truly believe, “we are stronger together.”
This feeling permeates the campuses of Stephenville ISD, a 4A school district with one high school, one junior high, an intermediate school, and three elementary schools. The school community is committed to academic and extracurricular excellence as evidenced by their A accountability rating for the 2021-2022 school year and the top-five rating awarded to them in the University Interscholastic League (UIL) Lone Star Cup standings.
Despite the well-deserved recognition, district and campus personnel knew something was missing to get their students to the next level of intrinsic, student-centered learning.
“We strive for excellence in extracurriculars and academics, and in everything we do in Stephenville,” says Kelly Magin, Executive Director of Curriculum & Instruction at Stephenville ISD. “We had pretty much been doing well in the area of achievement across the district … but where we were missing the mark was in our individual student growth.”
The Raising Blended Learners Initiative gave the Stephenville team an opportunity to examine their curricular framework, which included conversations where they asked each other the hard questions about how and if they were “growing” their students. These discussions led to curricular decisions to pilot blended learning on one campus and on one grade level to begin the work of their self-identified problem of practice.
Implementation and early signs of success
Curricular and technological groundwork set the stage for the launch of the blended learning initiative at Hook Elementary during the 2020-2021 school year. The fourth-grade team teachers – a highly collegial and academically successful team – rolled up their sleeves and got to work.
But this work wasn’t without bumps along the way. Successful and respected veteran teachers were asked to reflect on and revise practices that appeared to yield positive results at first glance. Once they dug deeper into their student data as a team they began to identify patterns in learning gaps. That mindset shift and willingness to adapt established practices doesn’t happen overnight.
“Being the control freak I am, it was very difficult to release some of that,” Robin Kimbrough, a fourth-grade English Language Arts teacher, shares openly. “When I first started my [SMART path time], my students traveled in stations according to where I told them to go. Then, eventually, I released a little bit more of that.”
Kimbrough’s colleague echoes her sentiment that giving students increased agency to choose their own pathways during stations took a release of control. But they took implementation week by week and revised their classroom procedures and blended frameworks as they went along. Once they started to see substantial student growth across the board, all of the pilot teachers bought in fully and are now bringing other colleagues along.
“It’s definitely a challenge at the beginning, but the outcome is beautiful,” says Daphne Jones, a fourth-grade math teacher. “I feel like we’re preparing students in a much deeper way than we’ve ever prepared them before. I feel like instead of just staying on my normal TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) path that Texas sets up, I’m able to branch into fifth-grade TEKS and sixth-grade TEKS and then fill their buckets with third, and second, and first. I get to teach all of those lessons. I see [students] taking ownership of their learning in a different manner than ever before.”
Amber Lemons, the lead blended learning district coach, says she’s seen a transformation in the way the students talk about their learning in addition to seeing growth and gaps filled in the students’ data. “When I walk in, and they talk about this TEK, and this is my focus, and this is my weakness, and this is my strength. It’s not the teachers talking about that anymore; it’s the kids owning their learning.”
And the growth is across the board for learners at all levels. In this model, teachers have more one-on-one time to talk to students about their data, help them identify focus areas, and set goals. Simultaneously, students have more time to practice key skills using a wide variety of modalities and learning strategies and to collaborate with their peers.
Kelly Eakin, a fourth-grade English Language Arts teacher, says blended is the missing piece for her in 26 years of teaching.
“My whole career, I’ve always wanted to know the secret. What is the secret to making sure everybody in your classroom is successful? I’d go to workshops. I’d buy every single book. I would listen to what my co-teachers were saying. I would try to implement all of these different things, and then every year I’d have the same results.”
She chokes up a bit, “I would talk to anybody about this process. I would tell you it is hard. It’s hard to change what you’re doing after you’ve done it for 25 years or more, but it is that missing piece.”
Watch the video below to hear more from Eakin and Kimbrough on how blended is the key to growing all students in Stephenville ISD.
Six leadership lessons for change management
Implementing blended and personalized learning strategies with fidelity, intention, and reflection required strong leadership at the campus level. Much of the pilot’s early foundation and the campus-wide change management work rested with Daresa Rhine, the principal of Hook Elementary.
Rhine shared with the Charles Butt Foundation her six biggest leadership lessons learned from the first year and a half of implementation:
- Determining what’s urgent vs. what’s important
- “I go back to that saying, sometimes the urgent demands my attention but it’s not necessarily important. I had to shift that mindset and I had to focus on, ‘What is important?’ Meeting with my teachers and having these conversations and implementing this with fidelity, was important. We had to figure out how to deal with the urgent because it’s still urgent, but focus more time and energy on what’s important.”
- Prioritizing and protecting professional learning communities
- Rhine modified the master schedule so that there was more protected time for connection between the team of teachers and for digging deeper into how to apply classroom data to the instructional plan.
- “I restructured our schedules to where we have Thursday meetings, everybody across the board. I participate in every one of those meetings … I’m not always leading it unless it’s over a topic that the lead teacher doesn’t feel as comfortable with, but I’m a part of it and can answer questions and have discussions if something comes up. I can speak to what we’re doing at all times. It’s very beneficial to be a part of that process constantly.”
- Bringing veteran teachers along
- At the beginning of the 2021- 2022 school year, a number of Rhine’s veteran teachers were resistant to the initiative. She took small, intentional steps to bring these teachers along and help them see the value of evolving their practices to include more personalized learning. For some, it took seeing results to buy in.
- “It’s hard to change a teacher’s mindset when they’re already doing successful work. At first, it was very much me encouraging just, step into it, just baby steps at first. Then I would say after the first semester, a lot of difficult conversations right after the Christmas break, it just seemed to click not just with one but several.”
- Transparency in learning and leading
- “It’s sometimes hard to be learning and leading at the exact same time as your teachers. The expectation of you as a principal knowing all the answers is there. The teachers want you to have those answers. They want you to know what to do. There were times I had to be very transparent and say, ‘I don’t know the answers to that, but we’re going to work together and we’re going to figure it out and find our way.’”
- Shifting from a rearview mirror approach to analyzing data, to an active approach
- “When I referred to the rearview mirror approach, I basically meant that we would receive end-of-year STAAR data and then we would start to make adjustments to our instruction for the next year based on that. By then, we didn’t have those students anymore and that data was old. With this process, we’ve been able to get our hands on real-time data … Being able to look at the data and talk about it as a team and then make those instructional adjustments have been very beneficial for us.”
- Celebrating teachers
- Rhine says some of her teachers took off running in the first semester of the pilot and others required a little more hands-on support and coaching. In bringing more than a dozen teachers along in implementing blended strategies she had to meet them where they were and take time to celebrate each teacher’s growth.
- “The teachers needed that reassurance that all this hard work was worth it. As principals, we don’t always take time to celebrate. I’ve tried to be very intentional. We had a celebration cart where we went into the meetings, had ice cream sundaes, had party hats, all the things, to try to make the teachers understand that what they’re doing is working and appreciated and celebrated.”