How a district transformed its approach to early literacy

A teacher meets one-on-one with a student to review her learning data.

By: 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 Harlingen CISD. They began their blended learning exploration with the goal of supporting Tier 2 & 3 students, those students who need more structured support to reach grade-level proficiency. However, this pursuit evolved into a new district-wide approach to teaching and learning that advances their investment in thoughtful innovation for the benefit of all schoolchildren.

The foundational concept and initiative

In the spring of 2019, 20 districts were selected to work on an initiative designed to help improve how students learn and how teachers teach. Blended learning represented the tool to facilitate those improvements. 

Blended learning utilizes pillars of learning- rigor, relationships, assessment, and data-driven instruction, personalization, and student agency- to foster a learning environment that is student-centered. An environment where students have some control over the time, place, and path of their learning.

“When we first saw the framework around Raising Blended Learners … it was, ‘Yes, this is exactly what we are needing,’ It was an answer to a lot of work, a lot of prayers about where we want our kids to be and what the hope is for our students, as they journey through HCISD.”

Dr. Alicia Noyola, Superintendent, Harlingen CISD

Student agency and pillars for success

Blended learning classrooms are not what you might remember from your schooling. The stereotypical classroom set up is typically replaced by clusters of desks for student collaboration, solo workstations, and an area for teachers and students to work together. And instead of the “sage on a stage” approach, students take more ownership over their learning and what they need to work on, while the teacher serves as a facilitator of learning strategies and tactics.

“The first difference you’re going to see is that each student is working on their own pathway based on their data,” said Jaymie Galan, principal of Bowie Elementary. “Within those zones, those learning stations, there is a pathway no matter your ability … As opposed to a non-blended learning classroom, they’re working at a center, but it’s not personalized. They’re all working on the same thing.” 

“When we first saw the framework around Raising Blended Learners, and those pillars that were essential to blended learning, it was, ‘Yes, this is exactly what we are needing,’” said Dr. Alicia Noyola, superintendent of Harlingen CISD. “It was an answer to a lot of work, a lot of prayers about where we want our kids to be and what the hope is for our students, as they journey through HCISD.”

Pillars of Blended Learning consists of 5 major pillars: data-driven instruction, personalized instruction, student agency, relationship, and rigor.

Starting small to get big

“Anything that we implement in Harlingen CISD, we have to know, first of all, what is the end product?” said Dr. Kortan, Assistant Superintendent for Leadership & Innovation.  “Where are we going, and why are we doing this? In our case, our why was our students. Aside from that, we knew that we needed to have a sustainable model. You start small to get big, right? In our case with Raising Blended Learners, we had the opportunity to create something the equivalent of studio schools. If you have these specialty schools, you use those schools to learn from, and you take from their learning, and then you expand it across the whole district.

We have great ideas in education, I think the biggest struggle is the execution and sustainability. In our case, anything that we do, we always have to keep that in mind, that it has to be something that’s sustainable.

We have aligned an entire org chart to Raising Blended Learners. We have people that are leading those initiatives with us who are solely responsible for making sure that people understand blended learning because you hear blended learning in many venues. What we’ve learned through this is that there is a right way to do blended learning, and it’s made a huge difference in our district.”

Produced & edited by Anne Bannister; cinematography by Anne Bannister, Lauren Reed​, & ​Jay​ ​Moreno.

My philosophy is, and continues to be, everyone has the ability to learn. Now, with blended learning, everybody has the ability to learn at their own time, at their own pace, at their own level and that makes it fun for them. They are being challenged exactly where they are at right now.

Beatriz Longoria, second-grade teacher, Bowie Elementary

The work begins

During the initial stages of the second cohort support, professional development focused on the five pillars of blended learning. From there, each district chose its focus areas. Harlingen chose: data-driven instructional practices, personalization & student agency.

Dr. Noyola shared, “When we can create this triangle of the teacher and the student and the parent, and create that student agency all the way across, how much, further along will we be with our little ones and where they need to be, to be successful and so super excited at the opportunities that are now being created.”

Goals turned into action, and results

After identifying their overarching goals, work began in earnest. In collaborative conversations, pilot campuses and teachers were selected. Dr. Jessica Hruska, RBL project manager, led teachers through professional development providing just-in-time support through existing campus professional learning communities (PLCs). In a truly united effort, the community of early adopters applied learnings from the Charles Butt Foundation professional development to the pragmatic needs of their students and classrooms. Their early indicators of success are impressive. On average, students in blended learning classrooms achieved 10% higher Lexile/NWEA scores than the district average. Additionally, teachers noted an increase in collaboration and student leadership. 

“My philosophy is, and continues to be, everyone has the ability to learn,” said Beatriz Longoria, a second-grade teacher at Bowie Elementary. “Now, with blended learning, everybody has the ability to learn at their own time, at their own pace, at their own level and that makes it fun for them. They are being challenged exactly where they are at right now.

A student practices phonics skills during her blended learning stations.
Harlingen CISD, RBL, Raising Blended Learners, pilot site. Young diverse female student looking at camera and smiling while in classroom.
Students work in individual stations as part of their blended learning smart paths.

Innovation and iteration drive novel approaches

Throughout the 2021-2022 school year, the district continued to iterate and reflect. They examined practices and structures at all levels and they were transparent with themselves and with their colleagues about their learning along the way. Conversations in principal meetings led to instructional walks that spurred interest in the instructional practices. This summer, Harlingen rolled out their Teaching and Learning Framework 2.0 that has integrated blended learning practices into their district curriculum framework. They have focused on summer professional development for teachers and instructional coaches so that their scaling efforts will be sustained by the appropriate support. Campus leadership has also been vocal in wanting to adopt these practices and has clamored to be included in the next phase of implementation. 

“Blended learning is not a program, ” said Dr. Hruska, Blended Learning Specialist “It’s a way of teaching and you have to embrace it that way. I think for so long we have just sat there and said, ‘This is the way that it’s going to go, you have to teach this at this time in this way.’ I think blended learning really allows the teacher some autonomy to take some of the best instructional practices and deliver that instruction with leveraging technology in a very different way that’s right for their kiddos. I think as a district looking back, I don’t know if we quite understood that in the beginning.”

With the success they have experienced with their studio school approach, Harlingen has set the stage for future success driven by their belief in the importance of collaboration, transparency, and thoughtful innovation. From the student leaders in the classrooms to the district leaders who’ve guided the teaching and learning framework there is a unity of purpose to support the needs of all their students.

“It goes back to, we know it’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it, ” said Dr. Hruska. “And so are our kids.”

As proponents of the belief that every child deserves a high-quality education, we at the Charles Butt Foundation are proud to support the ongoing work of public school educators as they implement instructional strategies that benefit all students.