Carpe Diem Charter School Seizes Tomorrow’s Innovations Today

Published April 22, 2011

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.

‘One of the Best-Executed’
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.

Teaching Redefined
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.”

‘Blended Learning’ Embraced

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.

Test Scores Rise

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.

Seeking ‘Breakthrough’ Programs

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.

Changing Incentives
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 ([email protected]) is senior education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.