Breathing Life into Urban Ed with Blended Learning

As a big believer in the potential of blended learning to personalize instruction, I’m always excited to hear about schools shifting to blended learning. As a big believer in education as the most important social justice issue of our time, I get even more excited when these schools bring personalized, blended learning to traditionally-underserved student populations. Getting an opportunity to visit such a school, with a strong record of success, and in my own community? Well that kicks “excited” up a notch to “totally giddy.”

Carpe Diem, Yuma.

Maybe you’ve heard of Carpe Diem in Yuma, Arizona. If you’ve been around the blended learning space for awhile, perhaps you were around when Carpe Diem was one of tiny handful of blended learning schools in action. My introduction to Carpe Diem happened when a colleague shared a YouTube video about the model. If you’ve seen it, I’m willing to bet you were asking yourself the same question I was, “Why doesn’t learning look like this for students everywhere?”

Carpe Diem founder Rick Ogston, who began developing the model in 2003, is on a mission to address that question. Thoughtfully, Ogston opened the original Carpe Diem campus but wouldn’t expand until there was proof that the original model could deliver on the promise of personalized, blended learning. It didn’t take long to get those results. The school continues to outpace the average math and reading scores for the state. In 2010, Yuma’s Carpe Diem scored the highest in math, with 100 percent of their sixth graders passing Arizona’s standardized test. The high school graduation rate continues to exceed the state average by double digits. The proof was in the blended pudding, and it was time to expand.

Carpe Diem, Indianapolis.

Three new Carpe Diem schools have since opened, with plans underway for more. The first year results at the Carpe Diem Meridian campus in Indianapolis–Yuma’s first sibling and one of two in Indianapolis–quickly confirmed beliefs that the scalable model had legs! Serving a diverse student population with 63% eligible for free or reduced lunch, Meridian’s results on the stateside ISTEP standardized test revealed an overall passage rate of 80% across all content, with English scores surpassing the previous year’s pre-blended learning scores by 16% in 6th grade, 28% in 7th grade and 42% in 8th grade. The results, coupled with fulfilment of Ogston’s real goal to provide more personalized learning and better educational opportunities, confirmed the power of the model.

Carpe Diem, Cincinnati.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the latest addition to the Carpe Diem family – Cincinnati’s Carpe Diem at Aiken. The newly-born school, still in its earliest weeks of life having just opened in the fall, is already showing signs of improving opportunities for students who stand the most to gain from an educational model that is organized around their individual needs. Nestled inside a large, traditional public urban high school in Cincinnati, Ogston explains that two-thirds of the students who enrolled this year began between five and nine grade levels behind the grade level in which they enrolled. These are students who have been failed by their past educational experiences. As Ogston tells it, these are families who cry angry tears when their perception of reality is shattered, when their children who have been told for years that they are successfully passing each course, who have earned As and Bs and passed on to the next grade level, are suddenly presented with data that shows they are years beyond where they should be.

It’s no wonder that the school’s motto goes beyond academics to include the powerful charge to “Educate, Empower, Equip Learners for Life.” It’s also no surprise that meeting this set of audacious goals does not happen easily. Rick Ogston shared his thoughts on making blended learning work for the students who need it most based on his experiences in the schools he’s opened. It wasn’t until I reviewed our notes that I realized Ogston has found the formula for breathing life back into urban education with his own special form of CPR.

C = Culture. Thoughtful attention must be given to the overall culture and climate of the school since the new blended environment, organized around student needs, is largely unrecognizable for the majority of students and their families. Everything from the school facilities and organization of physical space to the school schedule and nature of personal interactions affects the school culture, and therefore must be intentionally developed and continuously cultivated. There’s a fair amount of acculturation that has to occur during the nascent stages of blended school development and as new students arrive to already-established blended schools. Students have to ignore the “muscle memory” from years in a vastly-different system and “unlearn” what they think learning looks like. The same is true for the other adults in the system – parents, teachers, leaders – who often experience a bit of “culture shock” when they are given unfamiliar freedoms.

P = Personalization. To build a setting with personalized learning as its primary goal, everything must be oriented around learners. Ogston urges Carpe Diem teachers and leaders to always stay focused on “the kid that’s before us.” At Carpe Diem, the data is the connection between the time students spend online and the time they spend with teachers. Ubiquitous, granular data about each student’s learning trajectory creates a “hyper-awareness” of student achievement in real-time that can’t be ignored by teachers, students, or the system. Individual student data is a key ingredient in powering personalization and dictates goal-setting as well as the elements that daily learning experiences will include. However, Ogston cautions that “data isn’t everything” and asserts that “data is there to help us ask more questions; data itself is not the answer.”

R = Relationships. The only way to customize learning is to get to know each student on an individual level. At Carpe Diem, adults start by asking students who and what they want to become in order to find that “hook” that will allow teachers to create meaningful learning experiences tied to their personal life goals. Finding the right teachers and the right leaders is essential to making these relationships work. At Carpe Diem, that means teachers must be truly passionate content-experts with a strong work ethic and a “whatever it takes” attitude who believe in the power of personalized learning to help students soar. Ogston feels strongly that you just can’t underscore the importance of strong leadership enough. Pointing to the impact on the school culture and climate after the tragic loss of Carpe Diem Yuma’s first principal, Ogston explains, “All of this really comes down to good leadership.”

Ogston is right. It’s his own leadership that has set Carpe Diem on a trajectory of success, and Carpe Diem has earned the attention it deserves. With four schools now serving students and plans for more, it’s a model with potential to give students a chance at a better life and what better achievement can there be than that?

Special thanks to Rick Ogston and the staff of Carpe Diem – Aiken for opening up their school to this visitor in such early stages of its life. The work you are all doing together has already created a culture that is making a difference for students in our community!

By Carri Schneider

Posted November 20, 2013 on

CD Meridian Wins Regional “Students in Action” Competition

Indianapolis, IN (March 15, 2013) – On Tuesday, March 12, Carpe Diem-Meridian, a tuition-free public charter school for grades 6 – 12, which opened in August 2012, won the regional “Students in Action” award, created by the prestigious Jefferson Awards to promote volunteerism in the nation’s schools. Carpe Diem-Meridian was deemed a Gold Medal School by the judges and was selected as the winner of the Regional Competition. The students will receive a check for $1,500 to support their “Students in Action” projects and represent the state of Indiana and their region at the 2013 Awards Banquet in Washington, D.C. in June.

“It is unusual for a school in its first year of existence to medal at the competition,” comments Regional “Students in Action” Director Amanda Johnson. “The fact that Carpe Diem Meridian’s students won the competition in their first year of operation is nothing short of extraordinary.”

“We are thrilled and so proud of our students,” comments Principal Mark Forner. “Alyssa Starinsky, our Social Studies teacher and “Students in Action” director, has done a marvelous job throughout the school year engaging and encouraging our students to serve others. Our kids took the competition and their preparation seriously – and they delivered. Congratulations to our kids and to ‘Miss Star’!”

Carpe Diem-Meridian “Students In Action” (SIS) “aims to make a positive, and sustainable impact in the Indianapolis community through community service opportunities and projects that are open to all area students. We want our legacy to be the importance and power of service.” The students, supported by their media sponsor WRTV Channel 6 and donations solicited through their website, originated a number of public service projects throughout the school year that made a significant impact on their community.

Starinsky has a firm vision for her students, “I want them to be articulate, to be confident, and to be part of life-long service.” Since August when the school opened its doors, 90% of the students attending Carpe Diem-Meridian are participating in SIA. They have worked nearly 10,000 service hours and 100% of the money they raise is invested in their projects.

Key accomplishments include establishing a partnership with The Julian Center’s “Circles of Support” children who are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. This project was recognized by theAssociation of American Educators who presented them with a check for $500, which was used to purchase toys. The students are responsible for fundraising, which includes writing grants, as well as promoting their projects, and recruiting volunteer participation from the community. Details of all the Carpe Diem-Meridian “SIA” projects, photos and videos can be found on their website.

To find out more about the school, and how to become involved as a volunteer or donate to Carpe Diem-Meridian “Students in Action,” visit their websiteand follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

About Carpe Diem Indiana

Carpe Diem Indiana leverages technology, information, and human resources to ensure a superior learning experience at its schools that assures all its students will be career ready and college prepared. Carpe Diem Indiana Schools are tuition free public charter schools using a personalized blended-learning model to educate 6-12th grade students. By August 2013, Carpe Diem Schools will be located in Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, Indiana; Cincinnati, Ohio and Yuma Arizona.

The Jefferson Awards

The Jefferson Awards are a prestigious national recognition system honoring community and public service in America. Established in 1972 by Jacqueline Kennedy, the Awards were created to serve as a Nobel Prize for public service. Today, their primary purpose is to serve as a “Call to Action for Volunteers” in local communities. As a grassroots program, the Jefferson Awards created “Students In Action” (SIA) in order to promote volunteerism in the nation’s schools. Each spring, competitions are held in thirteen regions across the country among participating schools. SIA students are required to prepare and deliver a presentation highlighting their group’s volunteer activities and accomplishments from the previous school year. A panel of judges, including representatives from local media, business and service groups, then determines whether each group has met the qualifications to be either a Bronze, Silver or Gold medal school. One school is selected at each competition as the Regional Winner among the competing schools.


Carpe Diem Charter School Seizes Tomorrow’s Innovations Today

Explaining the success of Carpe Diem Collegiate High School and Middle School requires more than simple answers, but the school’s innovations hold great promise for expanding educational excellence and opportunity.

With dozens of cubicles filling a large, open room, Carpe Diem resembles a corporate office more than a traditional school. Students in grades 6 through 12 sit at their individual stations as software loaded on their laptop computers guides them through core instructional material.

School leaders insist there is no magic in the circuitry or fiber optics. “It’s not about technology,” says Carpe Diem founder and executive director Rick Ogston. “It’s about how students learn nowadays.” He believes engaging students in their education requires a proper understanding of the art of instruction, and technology provides the critical leverage.

When it opened in 2002, the Yuma, Arizona K-12 charter school used a traditional program and format. Three years later Carpe Diem converted its middle and high school to a unique blended learning model. A January 2011 report by the California-based Innosight Institute defines blended learning as a system “in which students learn online in an adult-supervised environment at least part of the time.”

“[Carpe Diem] is one of the best-executed in terms of everything, to have rethought curriculum, instructional delivery, teacher role, and student supports,” says Michael Horn, Innosight’s executive director of education.

In addition to a physical education instructor and a special education teacher, Carpe Diem employs one instructor in each of five core subject areas to serve nearly 240 students enrolled in 2010-11.

With students spending half to two-thirds of the school day working at their individual stations, teachers trade lectures for coaching students who need help. These “guides on the side” have the flexibility to call out groups of 10 to 25 students to smaller rooms along the building’s periphery to provide face-to-face instruction.

“They are constantly grouping and regrouping students based on what they need, not based on some arbitrary decision,” Horn says.

After his visit to the school, Arizona superintendent of public instruction John Huppenthal recalled how he was impressed by the use of glass on the breakout classrooms, which enables easy observation.

“Now every teacher [and] every classroom is always open for review by the principal or visitors,” said Huppenthal. “We think that this is a unique motivating factor for improving teacher performance.”?? Ogston said he believes the teacher-student relationships are “absolutely essential” to Carpe Diem’s success. The school converted to the blended learning model in 2005 without having to import new faculty members.

Working year-round rather than in traditional nine-month terms, teachers grow personally familiar with students’ needs not only through years of consistent interactions but also regular feedback from the data-rich curricula. A full-time “course manager” provides weekly reports of individual learning, and staff, parents, and even students can monitor progress on a daily basis.

“They become managers of their learning instead of just receivers of information,” Ogston explained. Carpe Diem’s success is borne out in state testing results. Students have demonstrated stellar academic growth on Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) tests. The school rates first in the state for recorded learning gains in mathematics.

“We believe that Carpe Diem is a model for the future of education,” Huppenthal says. “Blended, or hybrid, learning offers exciting opportunities for schools and districts faced with shrinking resources to look for and find new ways to get a bigger bang for their educational buck.”

Ogston says he is concerned about funding inequities that shortchange Arizona charter schools, as it requires a reasonable amount of dollars to maintain necessary personnel. The school compensates teachers the same as or more than school district counterparts while spending at a more efficient per-pupil rate.

“When it comes down to the business side, maximizing resources for results, that’s really what this model does,” Ogston says. The Arizona superintendent argues a key factor in expanding the reach of innovative models like the one pioneered by Carpe Diem is in technology itself. “We need to be looking for those breakthrough software programs that are showing that they can produce significant student academic performance,” Huppenthal said.

Carpe Diem changes the software it provides to ensure the use of effective and rigorous curricula in the computer-assisted instruction. The school’s current e2020 system provides for a customized learning experience and allows students to engage the material through various interfaces.

Horn says budget belt-tightening has led most American school districts to experiment with some form of blended learning. But doing it right on a broad scale will require significant reforms, such as attaching funding to students down to the course level, Horn said.

“Rick Ogston is willing to ignore what the incentives in the system actually encourage him to do,” says Horn. “Instead of overcoming perverse incentives, we need to get the incentives right to really reward teachers for learning outcomes rather than for seat time and for categories.”

Carpe Diem’s founder remains focused on improving the model he and his colleagues have worked to pioneer.

“We don’t consider ourselves as having arrived,” says Ogston. “We are still tweaking ourselves and bettering ourselves every year.”

Ben DeGrow ( is senior education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.

The Daily Nightly (NBC’s Janelle Richards):

Sevanna Power sits at her workstation, completing her daily assignments. She’s logged into a computer, which is where she does most of her lessons and coursework. Power is a seventh-grader at Carpe Diem Collegiate High School and Middle School in Yuma, Arizona. This is her second year attending the charter school where there are no traditional classrooms.

“I do miss [classrooms],” Power said. “Because I had a lot of fun with reading and we still do that here, but I like to hold books too, so it’s just interesting to not have that now.”

At Carpe Diem, students use computers to work at their own pace. The middle and high schoolers kick off the day in the learning center, then rotate between completing online assignments and going into classes — where they receive direct instruction from teachers in what they call workshops.

“There are lectures on the computer but it’s very one dimensional. There’s one way to explain things and some children don’t get that … that’s why we have the workshops,” said Chet Crain, dean of students at Carpe Diem. “So a student who doesn’t understand, say, dividing fractions, they’ve listened to the lecture on their computer but they still don’t get it, then they can come to the workshop and ask our math teacher to please explain this another way. And by using projects, by using manipulatives and by using whatever it takes, we will make that student successful.”

Organizers say this blended learning model allows students to pursue their individual education plans. Floor staff is always on hand in case students need help. Some say the mix of technology and teacher interaction at Carpe Diem is what’s necessary to educate kids in the 21st century.

Dan Harvey, who has three children enrolled in the school, called it the best of both worlds, describing the setup as unique because of the “traditional aspects with the workshops and the classrooms, but then the individual nature of it. We’ve got five kids and they’re all very different … this kind of enables them to kind of do their own pace and go their own speed.”

Larry Cuban, education professor emeritus at Stanford University, said that while this type of model may work for some, it’s not one-size fits all — and more research needs to be done because “very few studies are done independent of the schools of themselves. And so the evidence isn’t there. But that doesn’t mean that people are not going to try it. There are a lot of things tried in American schools that have very little evidence or research to support them.” Cuban said he understands why blended learning is attractive to educators and families.

Carpe Diem administrators and teachers explain the importance of the blended learning model and why moving away from a traditional classroom prepares students for the future. “Parents want their kids to be treated as individuals” and “[blended learning] programs promise that there will be more individualized teaching and learning by the students,” he said.

He also pointed to cost, explaining, “You don’t need as many teachers. And that is attractive … when a lot of districts are letting teachers go, when there is a smaller teacher force now.”

Carpe Diem’s four academic teachers agreed that the program is not for everyone, but the test results are promising: 90 percent of Carpe Diem students are proficient in core subjects, compared to about 70 percent statewide, according to the Arizona Department of Education.

Many Carpe Diem students used to attend more traditional schools and said there are pros and cons to both.  “I like the fact of how flexible [Carpe Diem] is,” said seventh-grader Timothy Harvey. “I can’t take tests at home, so if I wanna do work from home I can, on the weekends or after school if I feel that I want to, or if my parents want me to do some work, or I need to if I’m behind.”

For Kristina Felix, a senior, the undivided attention she receives from the same teacher every year and the ability to work at her own pace are a plus.

“It’s really great, like I get to communicate more with them,” Felix said. “There’s less people here so I feel less pressured; I don’t have to compare myself to other people … I wanna be a nurse and with this I think it’s really helping me a lot.”

Education, Ability, and the American Dream


When I asked my 11 year old son what The American Dream was, he replied, “A catchphrase about what people want.”  When I probed what they would want, he said “I don’t know, something patriotic.” Was it realistic to expect that he’d heard the phrase in its usual context by grade 5?  Maybe not.  What would I have answered at his age in 1987?

I can’t be sure, but The Secret of My Success, released that year, has always been one of my favorite movies and Michael J. Fox as Brantley Foster/Carlton Whitfield definitely epitomized the realization of The American Dream. Certainly, messages like that fostered my visceral understanding of the phrase:

  • Anyone can become anything they want to be.
  • No goal is outside your reach if you try hard enough or fall into the right kind of luck.
  • Social class is not a birthright.

The small part of me that is a cynic views my son’s answers, so different than what I envision mine would have been, as a confirmation of the dour outlook in Robert D. Putnam’s book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis – the dream of upward mobility, rags-to-riches, financial success for all has become a fantasy, not a realistic goal for kids growing up today.

I agree with the conclusions of the book (and greatly appreciate that Mr. Putnam puts neither the blame for nor solution for the growing opportunity gap at the feet of teachers and schools). But I think the origin of the phrase “American dream” can offer a different insight. James Adams is credited with coining the phrase in his book, The Epic of America, in 1931.  Here are two quotes explaining his vision of this ideal:

“the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”

“a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain the fullest stature of which they innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of fortuitous circumstance of birth or position” 

Did you catch the missing element from my original understanding?  Ability, innate capability, matters. Our brains are not all created equal, and yet we too often equate intellectual capacity and capability with human worth, the value of a person as an individual, their ability to contribute meaningfully to society.  For a long time in the United States, that value has been tied to a college degree.

By Tracy Hood Ballinger on Apr 13, 2016 at 1:27 pm

As a member of the inaugural cohort of the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship for MBA in Educational Leadership at the University of Indianapolis, I had the opportunity to visit Switzerland to learn more about how and why their education system is successful.  We were looking for interplays between government and business, policy and practice.  But what was most striking was the cultural pride in their approach to educational conclusions. Education is compulsory and uniform for the primary and lower secondary levels (up to about age 15). The upper secondary programs are split into academic and vocational paths and in the eyes of the Swiss, leaving school with a diploma or a certification are equally valued and valuable conclusions. The paths to either outcome are fluid and overlapping – students are not locked into one particular exit based on their entrance. Ability, interests, personal priorities, and a wide host of other factors, allow students and families to determine what is the best end-result of time in school.

What would that look like in America if the Dream of success were actually tied to helping every student “attain the fullest stature of which they innately capable”? And what if we let every student develop into that fullest stature at their own pace until their brains had started maturing?  What could happen if we truly mean college and career ready (as in college or career as well as college then career) and then actually esteemed all career paths equally, even if not all of them required a college degree?

Right now, my son wants to be a doctor and so far he is showing potential and passion for that future.  But he also is pretty passionate about videogames and talks about wanting to have a job designing them. One of those paths would not require college, the other would; one could let his earning potential start immediately, the other only after an extended time and financial investment. Factors like job availability, work environment, opportunities for travel, mental stimulation, sense of fulfillment, available time with friends and family aren’t directly tied to college degrees. My pride will follow the outcome that lets him attain the future he wants, not in the path he took to get there.