“A Glimpse Inside a Blended Learning Middle School in Providence, RI”

Visit guided by the coach from the Highlander Institute who has been doing job-embedded training at the school

June 1, 2017


How the visit came about:

I had been reading about the Highlander Institute, and had concerns about them and about blended/”personalized”/proficiency based learning in general. (See Emily Kennedy Talmage’s blog post on the way that this agenda was imported to the state of Maine: What is Proficiency Based Learning?. See also Alison Hawver McDowell’s blog posts on digital/blended education and how it has been funded and promoted in RI: Hybrid Learning and Blended Learning Conference is no joke!.)   When looking through the web page of Highlander Fuse Fellows, I noticed a former respected colleague from the RI School for the Deaf. I got in touch with her to find out her take on her experience with Highlander. She got back to me some time later and said that she was impressed by the professionalism and effectiveness of their work. She was aware that I had been posting negative comments about online learning, and suggested that I see for myself. Through her contacts, a visit was arranged at a middle school in Providence, which serves students in grades 5 through 8.

Overall impressions:

This is a public school that opened three years ago, and has had a philosophy of blended learning since the beginning. The key catchwords seem to be differentiation, perseverance, and self-reliance. The emphasis is on “College and Career Ready,” and the content is tied to the Common Core State Standards. The bulletin board on one wall was covered with the pennants of prestigious colleges, with the title: Hey Warriors, What college will you be attending? That being said, the principal and teachers seemed genuinely dedicated to their students’ well-being as well as to their academic progress. The classrooms were arranged with a number of large tables/stations, each of which could accommodate up to about six students. Several teachers had brought in comfortable furniture—small couches and beanbag chairs—and the students were obviously at ease. All classes were orderly without rigid discipline. The only exception was the 7th grade science class, which was large and difficult for the sole teacher to manage. Each student had their own Chromebook. These were in use in all classrooms, except during the small group instructional time that the teacher provided to one rotating group at a time. The other students were expected to work independently at their stations, but they were encouraged to help each other as needed. The Chromebooks don’t go home, but students can log in to their work from a home device. I did not notice any truly innovative use of computer technology on this visit, such as communicating with scientists in real time, tracking an event such as the Iditarod, or creating art, drama, or music.

The Visit:

My colleague, a retired English teacher from a high school in Providence, and I followed the schedule of activities for the visit with several teachers and an administrator from Central Falls who were there to get ideas on blended learning to bring back to their schools.

First the principal of the middle school addressed the group and gave an overview of the school, the students, and the scheduling. He explained that the coach from the Highlander Institute had been coming to provide job-embedding training to the staff, which consisted of co-planning, co-teaching, and giving feedback. She had been in the same Fuse Fellow group with my former colleague from the RI School for the Deaf, and mentioned that she had also done embedded training there. She had taught for a number of years in public schools before working with Highlander.

The school is training teacher leaders in each department, so the Highlander input will be phasing out. They are still figuring out what to do about special ed, ELLs, and new teachers.

According to the principal, two middle schools in Providence have strong reputations, but the other five are struggling. Blended learning gave good data but the students were still not close to proficiency. The aim is to provide differentiated content, but this takes a lot of teacher time to develop. The Pawtucket Learning Academy had come to this school and told the staff about their experience with Summit, which is a personalized platform funded through Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg provided the engineers. Staff from the middle school went to California for a training.

The content is provided on Summit, as well as project work. The playlists with videos are tied to the standards—these are all ready so the teachers don’t have to spend the time developing them. Projects are embedded. The students work on projects collaboratively, on focus areas, and also have mentoring time regularly. Summit assesses cognitive skills throughout. Summit materials are on grade level; this is the core curriculum; there is a need to adjust for different students. While there is no data available yet on the effectiveness, the staff is positive about Summit.

Learning is “self-directed,” with emphasis on “habits of success.” There are mentoring groups, and students’ schedules all include Personalized Learning Time. At that time they do check-ins for goal-setting.

Visiting the classrooms:

At this point only the fifth-grade classes are using Summit for their online platform. We saw two classrooms using Summit. We also visited a 7th grade science classroom and a 6th grade ELL/ELA classroom. (ELLs are self-contained in ELA but are “pushed in” with an ELL teacher for other classes.) They plan to expand Summit to the upper grades year by year. The other classes use Google Classroom, Imagine Learning, and other platforms.

While the teacher was working with one small group, the other students in the class were at stations. Most were working independently on their Chromebooks. They were allowed to and encouraged to help each other if they had questions. In the science classroom, two of the small groups were supposed to be following printed directions for conducting an experiment. The teacher was working with a different group. She had no additional staff in her classroom. The project groups were having difficulty and the teacher had to interrupt her work with her small group to go over to point out what they were supposed to do. This was not working very well for any of these three groups.

In one of the classrooms I talked with a student working independently on a reading assignment on his Chromebook. There was a short article followed by multiple choice questions. I asked him how he was doing and how he liked it. He said he liked to earn points and also to see his progress and his Lexile score. A student in another class was working independently on Summarizing. She was taking notes from the screen, but actually she was copying the notes word for word. I asked her about it, and she said she had been having trouble passing the assessments. They had to score at least 8 out of 10 to pass. When I asked her to explain to me what Summarizing meant, she seemed to have no idea.

In another classroom the teacher was working on concepts about plants with a small group, using a textbook. She asked questions and the students each wrote the short answer on a small whiteboard, and then showed their answers to the teacher. While I was watching, most of the children got the answers wrong.

The highlight of the visit for me was the ELL/ELA teacher’s classroom. This teacher had many years of experience, and was just starting to get involved with the online platforms. While she worked with one group, other students worked independently on Chromebooks, and a special ed teacher worked with three other students. The ELL teacher had the text of a Michael Jackson song printed for each student, and they followed along with a video/audio of the song. This video had been provided through Summit. One of the students had recently arrived and knew no English. She was clearly made to feel a part of the group.

Two teachers addressed the group of visitors:

One of the teachers was the ELL teacher whose classroom we had visited. The other was an ELA leader of 7th grade. She would not start using Summit until 2018, but uses station rotation and playlists for some students. They are moving to a grading system by “mastery” according to the standards. She explained that she uses teacher-created resources and provides tech-free days to prevent the students from getting dependent on the technology. She wants them to understand the purpose of using the technology for particular tasks, and not to assume a need to use them for everything. She said that teachers have autonomy in what they choose to teach. She also explained that she had done a survey to see whether students preferred reading actual books, or online. To her surprise they preferred books. Yet there are not many books in the school. Money for a classroom set of books is hard to get, so they use opensource books. She states that the school has standards but no “curriculum.”

Two 5th grade students addressed the group, discussing their experience with Summit and answering questions:

The students were exceptionally poised and articulate. With Summit they first take a diagnostic test, then practice, and then take the Content test. When a student passes a Content test, the class snaps their fingers and claps. Students must get at least 8 questions out of 10 correct to pass. The students are required to take their own notes on the lessons. One student explained that she learned how to take notes from the Summit materials in the first few weeks of school. They are free to take a lot of notes or a little, and they can use their own notes, but only their notes, during the Content test. She has worked at her own pace and is already on the 7th grade level in science, and appreciates that students can work at their own pace. When asked what was frustrating about using Summit, both students said that the questions don’t match their notes—there is a disconnect. Apparently they have to make inferences to figure out the answer. Both students were enthusiastic about Summit and preferred it to “traditional” teaching.


My ongoing concerns:

Who are the people who actually develop the online content, and what are their qualifications? Do they have k-12 classroom experience?

What is the quality of the online materials from a content standpoint as well as a pedagogical standpoint? Can teachers access the content and questions that their students miss? Can they provide feedback to Summit?

Are students who are not highly motivated to “persevere” able to access the materials independently? What happens to the students who consistently do not meet the 8 question goal to pass each Contest test?

Does the “mastery” equate to deep processing of the material, available for connections to future learning, or is it fleeting?

The students are expected to work at grade level and acquire proficiency in the Standards, but no one seemed to question the validity of the standards.

The topic of privacy of the student data was not brought up.*

Neither was the topic of the potential dangers of the wifi radiation.**

The experienced teachers seemed able to incorporate the technology into their teaching. Will inexperienced teachers be able to provide authentic teaching/learning if they rely exclusively on the online platforms?


Note on a whiteboard in one classroom:

Day 5

Ss will explore and engage at their own pace and ability on self-directed playlists to describe that energy in animals’ food was once solar energy.

Read and comprehend literature at high end of grade 5 text complexity band proficiently and independently.


On a bulletin board:

Are your PLT [Personalized Learning Time] goals


Measureable [sic]






P.S. Some background information on “Summit Public Schools”

WHO WE ARE • Organizational Leadership

Diane Tavenner
Chief Executive Officer
Diane Tavenner is the Founder and CEO of Summit Public Schools (SPS), a leading charter management organization serving California and Washington State. Summit’s graduates are completing four-year college degrees at twice the national average. Newsweek and US News & World Report have ranked Summit among the top public schools in the nation. In partnership with Facebook, Summit is currently working to scale personalized learning by making its Personalized Learning Platform (PLP) available to schools across the country for free through the Summit Basecamp program. [emphasis added]

Diane serves as the Board Chair of the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) representing the majority of California’s 1,300+ charter schools. Diane also serves on the board of Transcend, The Primary School and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning. Diane is a member of the Spring 2013 cohort of the Pahara-Aspen Education Fellowship, a leadership program within the Aspen Institute and a fellow in the Broad Academy.

Prior to Summit, Diane was a public school teacher, administrator and leader in traditional urban and suburban public schools throughout California. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology from the University of Southern California and a master’s degree in administration and policy analysis from Stanford University.

[See the article for live links.]

Summit Public Schools–Who We Are–Leadership


Funding and Strategic Partnerships:

Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, Charter School Growth Fund, et al

Summit Public Schools–Who We Are–Partners



*Here are some of the privacy concerns about Summit brought up by Leonie Haimson, a leading advocate for the privacy of student data, last October, 2016:

“Summit is sharing the student personal data with Facebook, Google, Clever and whomever else they please – through an open-ended consent form that they have demanded parents sign.  A copy of the consent form is here. [See the article for live links.]

“I have never seen such a wholesale demand from any company for personal student data, and can imagine many ways it could be abused.  Among other things, Summit/Facebook claims they will have the right to use the personal data ‘to improve their products and services,’ to ‘conduct surveys, studies’ and ‘perform any other activities requested by the school.’ …

“The Summit platform has never been independently vetted for security protections – or shown to yield any educational benefits, and I believe is a very radical way to outsource instruction and student data to private companies.”

Serious Privacy Concerns


**For an introduction to concerns about the safety of wifi radiation in schools, see what is being done in Maryland:

Safe Tech for Schools Maryland


“Medical researchers are pointing to an array of psychological, emotional, and physiological health issues screens pose to children at the same time that schools are integrating wireless networks and one to one device initiatives into classrooms. In response to these concerns, many schools worldwide are replacing wireless systems with wired systems, limiting time children spend on screens and developing policy to address health concerns posed by school wireless networks.
Wi-Fi in School Report of the Children’s Environmental Health and Protection Advisory Council
Letters from Physicians CEHPAC’s Public Comments
Maryland State Children’s Environmental Health and Protection Advisory Council Website
Local/State/National and International Policy action on Wireless and Children

See the full press release from Maryland


And here is a recent article from Worcester, MA:
Worcester Schools Draft Warning on Wireless Devices



Sheila Resseger

June 3, 2017


Please leave comments, concerns, and questions!





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