Finding a path to success that’s real for kids

An English Language Arts Teacher checks in with her students to answer questions about the assignment as student break into groups to conduct their research.

By: Anne Bannister & Christine Lowak

Photography by: Taylor Harrison

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 on 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 showcase the vulnerability of Venus ISD leaders in taking ownership of significant gaps in secondary reading instruction and the thoughtful strategies they put in place to help students find real and lasting success.

Student-centered learning

In mid-April, Wendy Silvers opens her 10th grade English Language Arts class by previewing the objectives for the class period, which will be partially self-directed by the students. 

Silvers instructs the class to start their independent and group work by watching a video clip featuring Delia Owens, author of the book, Where the Crawdads Sing. After watching the video, students choose a research topic and writing assignment from a playlist of choices related to the text. The three literary themes and corresponding learning pathways include loneliness, isolation, and protection of nature. 

In their small groups, students discuss the merits of each pathway, division of project responsibilities, and the best use of class time. Silvers checks in with each group, providing feedback on their plans and posing questions to help students connect more deeply with the text. 

This high level of student agency and engagement represents a positive and targeted shift in teaching and learning practices for Venus ISD. 

“The journey to get here has been painful,” said Warren Hudson, Instructional Technology Coordinator and Raising Blended Learners (RBL) Project Manager “It’s been difficult to realize and to own that some of the things that we did in the past, that we thought would be great for students did not accomplish the goal. In some ways, it dug a deeper hole for us. Now we have to make that right, because we need to do what’s right for our students. We owe it to them to get it right.”

What changed for Venus ISD?

Produced & edited by Anne Bannister; cinematography by Anne Bannister & Brian Diggs; assisted by Taylor Harrison & Christine Lowak

What I want for all of our students is for them to develop the skills to become self-actualized learners, to become lifelong learners.

Ann-marie morgan, curriculum director, venus isd

Meet Venus ISD

Venus ISD is a 4A Title I school district located 25 miles south of Fort Worth, Texas. The district of roughly 2,300 students identifies as 63% Hispanic and 29% White, with 75% qualifying as economically disadvantaged, and 28% as emerging bilingual. 

As with many smaller districts, the school serves as the heart of the community. Teachers and leaders recognize how tight-knit and caring the community they serve is. They know the responsibilities students have outside of school. Feeding livestock before starting the school day is common. So is working a part-time job. For the educators and leaders of Venus ISD, this awareness translates to the reciprocal, caring relationships evident in every interaction.  

As one example, several years ago the district opened its doors when a water crisis left many in the community without running water. The high school gym provided fresh water for all in need. 

This commitment to their students was a motivating factor in evaluating their academic practices — they were dissatisfied with what they saw. Something needed to change.

In 2019, Venus ISD applied and was selected for the Raising Blended Learners® Demonstration Initiative. Through the initiative, the district team targeted two equivalent pathways: 

  1. increasing student reading comprehension levels 
  2. improving student engagement at the secondary level.

“Through the grant application process, we were forced to look at data in some different ways that we hadn’t before and take a hard look in the mirror to understand what processes and procedures we had in the district and look at the results that we were getting from that,” said Hudson. “We weren’t happy with the results. We had to own the fact that the majority of our kids weren’t reading on grade level.” 

This realization — that many middle school and high school students were missing foundational reading skills — solidified the district’s commitment to pursue blended learning. Not as a technology intervention or a remediation technique, but as an instructional resource to personalize learning for each student.

Dr. Ann-Marie Morgan, Curriculum Director, summarizes the district’s intentions with blended learning. “We take the best of classroom practices that are driven by a teacher with the technology that allows us to customize and provide resources and tools so that every student gets exactly what he or she needs. That is what we are trying to create when we say we’re doing blended learning in Venus ISD.” 


District leaders’ epiphanies regarding current practices prompted their reflection about how they would approach this change – starting first with pilot classrooms in reading and English Language Arts (ELA) with the intention to scale to all core areas. They knew that mandates were unwarranted and unnecessary within their educator community. As a team, they held courageous conversations about needed structures and the philosophical approach that would support the shift in mindsets and behaviors in the classroom. The district’s thoughtful implementation is highlighted below:

1. Administrative discipline and leadership transparency

This is the foundation of the work in Venus ISD. Leaders at all levels are transparent about their own learning journeys. From conversations in professional learning communities (PLCs) to courageous conversations with each other, they constantly reflect on the work to ensure they maintain fidelity to their commitment. They define this as administrative discipline. District and campus leaders meet regularly to evaluate student data and cross-reference it with their desired goals on the Raising Blended Learners – Implementation Continuum (RBL-IC). But it’s what happens after data evaluation that is most important. Hudson details how this manifests in the district. 

“Here’s where we want to be. Are the things we’re talking about doing going to help us get there or not?” Hudson explains difficult conversations where each participant feels free to share insights are crucial. “We’ve all had to set our egos aside and understand that other people’s perspectives are important.” 

Kimberly Buck, principal of Venus Middle School, shares how this journey has been eye-opening for her. “I truly struggled because I would’ve said I was not a STAAR-centered person. I would’ve said that to all of my teachers. I did in interviews, but when we got down to it, we still were and I had to come back and apologize.” 

She goes on to explain the ripple effect of transparent leadership on her campus. “It was very much a mindset shift for teachers to go from a teacher-centered lesson to student-centered lessons.” She notes, “We had to make it an environment where it’s okay if it’s not perfect every day, it’s okay if today it all falls apart, and then we have to start again tomorrow.”

The constant focus on doing what’s right for students supports the district’s vision, “EXCELLENCE GROWS HERE. EACH ONE. EACH DAY.” 

2. Master schedule

Educational leaders know time is their most valuable resource, and if they are going to ensure that behavioral changes follow mindset changes, they need to create the necessary structure. In a school, this starts with the master schedule. It must reflect campus non-negotiables, or the work will not happen. The leadership team reworked secondary schedules to reflect this understanding. 

In the initial stages, all 6th and 7th graders, and most 9th graders, were enrolled in both an ELA and a reading course. Together, the two classes provide access to rigorous grade-level instruction and the personalized practice to mastery that is the foundation of blended learning in the classroom.  

“We started this whole journey thinking engagement was our issue,” Buck shares. “And then as we went through the process, we realized it was a reading issue … We added a second reading class, so every sixth grader and seventh grader gets core content on grade level in their ELA class, but we were able to support them with a second reading teacher that meets them more where they are.”

At the high school level, where scheduling is more complex, campus leaders prioritized both the 9th grade reading class and a dedicated PLC period for teachers despite staffing challenges. Teachers work in partnership with the principal during PLCs to analyze classroom data so instruction meets the needs of all learners. This further example of administrative discipline ensures teacher teams collaborate closely with direct support from their campus leaders – including getting necessary instructional resources. 

Pilot teachers also speak to the critical role of the blended learning coach, Kimberley Hill in growing their capacity through data analysis, classroom walkthroughs, and modeling lessons. Hill’s coaching encompasses everything from data analysis to modeling lessons, always in support of increasing student and teacher efficacy. Hill speaks to one of these practices.

“Secondary teachers need to understand that data is their very best friend. When they look at the data and they can diagnose what’s going on with the student, then that’s when they can understand the prescription to fill those gaps.”

3. Teacher alignment and plans for scale

The pilot reading and the ELA teachers work in concert, planning lessons and scaffolding instruction across classes. The reading class focuses on personalized practice to target and fill gaps in foundational phonics skills and text comprehension. Meanwhile, the ELA class provides rigorous grade-level instruction. Together, this work embodies the Raising Blended Learners mantra, “personalized practice to mastery.” 

In both classrooms, structures evolved from a teacher-centered to a student-centered environment by implementing the station rotation model so that students receive small group instruction, peer collaboration and greater choice through playlists. This results in greater student engagement and perseverance, including working on items that they might not prefer but know will result in their continued academic success. 

As the pilot teachers progress with their blended learning practices, the word is spreading. Other teachers are becoming invested in these strategies as they see gains in student academic growth and increased engagement in learning. 

“Every campus now understands that we’re going to make decisions based on the data,” says Santiago Camacho, the principal of Venus High School. “I think culturally the kids expect it when they go from one room to the other … We as the administrators at the high school understood we were going in the right direction when we had a RBL meeting. We invited the math teachers, because that’s who we will bring [into the pilot] in the fall next year (2023-2024 school year). I had a science teacher come into my office and say, “Why are we being left out? Why can we not do it?” At that point, I went ahead and did the data piece, because you give it to them in increments just like we did when we were trained. This year the social studies teachers wanted to be included, so we’ve decided to add social studies and math next year.”

Now that 90% of your students are approaching that level, there’s a lot more text you can use that is reasonable and relevant for your students, and then you can have a rich discussion and real learning happening in the classroom because they’re able to access good-quality literature.”

Warren Hudson, Instructional Technology Coordinator, Venus ISD

Early signs of success

Compared to baseline data from the start of the initiative three years ago, the district demonstrated growth in the following areas:

  • At the middle school level, student reading comprehension levels improved by 42% as measured by the adaptive software.
  • At the high school level, student reading comprehension levels improved by 77% as measured by the adaptive software.
  • The percentage of students achieving meets or masters on STAAR/EOC has increased by an average of 8 points in the grade levels that are supported by an additional reading class.

“They’re able to access texts that they just couldn’t before and our English teachers are beginning to be able to use novels in ways that they didn’t feel they could before,” Hudson says. “It sounds like a small thing that in your English class, you should be using novels, but in the past, when only 10% of your students are even knocking on the door of an eighth-grade reading level, it’s not something that you think is an appropriate use of your class time. Now that 90% of your students are approaching that level, there’s a lot more text you can use that is reasonable and relevant for your students, and then you can have a rich discussion and real learning happening in the classroom because they’re able to access good-quality literature.”

The most telling sign that this work is making a difference comes from the students themselves. At the beginning of the 2022-23 school year, students said they were struggling with reading skills. Several were afraid to read aloud in front of their peers. One emerging bilingual student said she had difficulty with English pronunciation. Another spoke about how hard it was for him to focus on full group lessons as someone with ADHD. 

But when asked about their experience at the end of the school year, their faces lit up. They enjoyed working in small groups and felt seen as individuals by their teachers. They spoke about getting targeted support on areas of growth and newfound confidence.

“I’m able to choose and decide how I want to do my work and what helps me learn the best way possible for me to move on and graduate,” a high school student shared.

 “It makes you feel like you’re actually being paid attention to instead of the whole class. … being pulled out and having personal time with the teacher and she’s helping you out, I think it makes you actually more focused.” 

Principal Camacho calls it, “empowerment,” he says, “it also goes to skills that they’re going to use, whether they’re in college or trade school, or they get out in the workforce because we all work collaboratively…They’re doing it. It’s not being dictated to them.” 

Students now want to come to school and want to read and engage in class. In turn, increased student engagement has decreased discipline challenges. 

“There’s a difference in terms of where referrals are coming from,” Camacho continues. “Engaged students aren’t discipline problems. When they’re in our blended learning classrooms, they’re more likely to be engaged, and less likely to exhibit some problematic behaviors.”

The district sees potential implications on teacher retention in relation to this work, as well. Hill says. “I haven’t had a single language arts teacher talk to me about going anywhere, and last year, I lost them all but two. I think that’s a big piece. I think that some of that comes back to that they feel like they’re making a difference.