LOS ANGELES – There seems to be a right way and a wrong way to blend technology and traditional instruction in K-12 classrooms.

The Los Angeles Unified School District effectively demonstrated the wrong way this school year when officials committed to spending $1 billion to purchase iPads for every student, teacher and administrator in the district before having a solid plan in place for how they’d use the machines.

District officials rolled out the program by issuing iPads to thousands of students before ensuring the devices were secure, and students quickly worked around a flimsy firewall to play games and visit social media sites.The security breach forced some kids to leave their iPads at school, while others could take them home.

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Some L.A. schools had the proper technology upgrades in place to handle the increase in Wi-Fi traffic, others didn’t. The entire program was mired by miscommunication, confusion and chaos. Most recently, district officials revealed the cost for upgrading district Wi-Fi capabilities is likely to be $300 million, or 50 percent, more than they originally thought, the L.A. Times reports.

But amid the commotion, a group of independent Los Angeles charter schools known as ICEF Public Schools was taking a different approach. ICEF officials began three years ago by soliciting teacher volunteers to develop and pilot a blended learning program, and grew the program slowly to about 150 students in 2011-12.

The pilot program expanded last school year to about 25 classrooms and 800 students using a collaborative approach that included monthly training and support, as well as teacher visits among schools so educators could learn how their colleagues were implementing the technology.

After only two years, the focused, teacher-led transition into blended learning is already reaping very impressive academic gains for ICEF students. Last year, 100 percent of teacher Aziza Pavageau’s second grade class scored proficient or better in math, and 88 percent achieved the same status in English Language Arts on the California state exam.

“In my first year of teaching, I realized how difficult it was to differentiate instruction for each student,” Pavageau said.

“Blended learning helped me to differentiate more effectively with the use of online adaptive programs. This has helped ensure that students who are below grade level, or haven’t yet mastered a concept, are getting the instruction they need. It also allows students that are above grade level to be challenged and move ahead at their own pace.”

The more deliberate approach to integrating technology into the classroom, and the academic achievement it’s helping to drive, also attracted private donors who recently committed $1.25 million for additional technology and infrastructure upgrades and computers for students needed to expand the program to all of ICEF’s 12 Los Angeles campuses next year.

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‘A different way of teaching’

ICEF Chief Executive Officer Parker Hudnut told EAGnews the charter network’s blended learning program is “really a different way of teaching” that involves three different zones in the classroom: small groups of students working together, students receiving direct teacher instruction, and computer stations with online games and activities for independent learning.

“Throughout all the zones, it’s a more intimate learning environment,” Hudnut said. “You are putting the student in charge of their education, and teachers are more like facilitators.”

Using special software, teachers are able to track students’ progress in real time and focus their efforts on helping them overcome areas where they’re struggling. By keeping closer track of student progress, teachers are also able to group students by learning style or ability, instead of teaching to the lowest denominator.

“And just like teachers can track the student progress, most of that data is also available for parents,” Hudnut said.

Because the vast majority of ICEF students come from low-income, minority households without Internet access or computers, the schools make computer terminals available for parents during parent-teacher conferences and other times.

As a result, “we have noticed an uptick in interest,” Hudnut said. “Parents want to know how their children are doing.”

Bottom-up approach

Unlike LA Unified’s iPads-for-all mandate, which came as a top-down initiative from the district’s central administration, the blended learning program at ICEF Schools was grown organically from the ground up, Hudnut said.

“We put teachers front and center in this process,” Hudnut said. “We wanted the people using the technology to be highly involved.

“For us, it was important to put teachers in the driver’s seat.”

ICEF educators who volunteered to participate in the new blended learning program helped design the system, and they worked together to build on what worked best. As other teachers noticed the progress, more volunteered to participate and Hudnut said officials now have more teachers interested in integrating the program in their classrooms than ICEF can currently fund.

Hudnut credited ICEF’s focused, teacher-led approach as a main reason why the charter network has been more successful than some other districts at integrating their blended-learning model.

“I think it’s going intelligently slower to make sure every step of the process is being reviewed and involved with teachers,” he said. “Until we prove to ourselves it’s helping students, we’re not going to roll it out aggressively.”

The student success is also likely due in part to ICEF’s core educational values.

“ICEF Public Schools was founded in 1994 with the goal to transform the South Los Angeles community by providing high-quality educational opportunities for its students and preparing students to attend and compete academically at the top 100 colleges and universities in the nation,” according to the ICEF website.

“ICEF has achieved great success in closing the achievement gap for African American and Latino students through an established K-12 model based on academic rigor, high expectations for its students, parental involvement and rich extracurricular offerings in athletics and visual/performing arts.”

ICEF schools, which serve 4,200 predominantly low-income minority students at 12 South Los Angeles schools, is an independently run charter network. The schools’ non-union status allows flexibility for school administrators to work directly with teachers to reform and evolve its education programs without the consent of often adversarial union officials.

Regardless, Hudnut believes ICEF’s new blended-learning model is something that could be replicated in unionized public schools with the help of a cooperative teachers union. Hudnut, a former public school official, acknowledged however that some unions aren’t interested in collaboration between teachers and school leaders.

“Ideally, (building collaboration is) what unions should be doing,” he said. “But I understand that’s not always how it works.”

Now, with a winning strategy in hand, Hudnut said he has a new problem at ICEF that he’s more than happy to address.

“My problem now is we have to fundraise to be able to provide the technology teachers want,” he said. “That’s a good problem to have because the teachers are driving this evolution.”