Carpe Diem Groundbreaking Education

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On May 2, under a glorious spring sky, a new charter school officially broke ground on the Northwest side of San Antonio. Carpe Diem Learning Systems’s first Texas campus will be located on Military Drive in the heart of District 6 and Northside Independent School District.

The event carried all the ceremony and anticipation appropriate for an effort that has been years in the making. In 2011 when Victoria Rico, chair of the George W. Brackenridge Foundation, sought out Carpe Diem’s founder Rick Ogston at a Philanthropy Roundtable Conference she was told that he was unavailable because of a meeting with Melinda Gates.

Fortunately, Rico is not easily deterred, and four years later Carpe Diem Innovative School – Westwood is slated to open in the fall of 2015. If charter enrollment trends are any indicator, the blended learning innovator will have no problem filling up to 400 slots for 6-10th graders in its first year. From there the school hopes to scale with the 10th graders until they enroll 600 students in grades 6-12.

Victoria Rico with her children, Sophia and Lucas Rico, and Carpe Diem Innovative Schools - San Antonio Superintendent Nick Fleege at the ground breaking event for Carpe Diem Innovative School - Westwood. Photo by Bekah McNeel

Victoria Rico with her children, Sophia and Lucas Rico, and Carpe Diem Innovative Schools – San Antonio Superintendent Nick Fleege at the ground breaking event for Carpe Diem Innovative School – Westwood. Photo by Bekah McNeel

At the ground breaking event Carpe Diem Innovative Schools – San Antonio Superintendent Nick Fleege hinted that there was space on the 6.116 acre lot for downward expansion. This kind of entrepreneurial gusto is characteristic of the high performing charters out of Arizona. Carpe Diem will join BASISand Great Hearts Texas as the third Arizona-bred chain to capitalize on the charter-friendly climate in the Texas legislature.

Carpe Diem Learning Systems originated in Yuma, Arizona. Each expansion focused on a city with uniquely appealing characteristics. In Indianapolis, the mayor is authorized to award charters, cutting out layers of bureaucratic hurdles. The Cincinnati Public School system literally opened their doors, authorizing and sharing a campus with the Carpe Diem school. Fleege says that the blended learning approach is ideal for this sort of collaboration.

“I’m hoping to find a partnership like that in San Antonio,” Fleege said.

Whether or not any of San Antonio’s school districts will eventually share space with a Carpe Diem school remains to be seen, but for now the relentless pursuit of education reformers like Rico has played a large role in getting San Antonio to the top of the list for charter school expansion.

Carpe Diem is enjoying considerable local political support, in addition to the heavy hitting philanthropic foundations dedicated to their success.

Brandon Seale, board chair of Carpe Diem Innovative Schools - San Antonio welcomes the crowd to the ground breaking for Carpe Diem Innovative Schools - Westwood. Photo by Bekah McNeel

Brandon Seale, board chair of Carpe Diem Innovative Schools – San Antonio welcomes the crowd to the ground breaking for Carpe Diem Innovative Schools – Westwood. Photo by Bekah McNeel

“You can’t go into a market without knowing you have the support of the market,” says Joe Bruno, president of Building Hope.

Choose to Succeed, the Ewing Halsell Foundation, the George W. Brackenridge Foundation, Building Hope and the Charter School Development Corp have backed the $7.25 million project. Councilmember Ray Lopez (D6) and Texas District 124 Representative Ina Minjarez were on hand at the May 2 event to show their support as well.

Minjarez kept her remarks brief, having been in office for only a few days. Lopez, on the other hand, recounted the story of a long career seeking educational opportunity for the children in District 6. For him, the influx of school choice is only as good as its accessibility to all students.

“Those who don’t have the ability to come, we need to go get them!” Lopez said.

He praised the school for doing an excellent job informing the neighborhood about their new educational option. The showing of neighborhood families at the event represented the outreach efforts underway as Carpe Diem walks the neighborhood and builds its database of interest.

While the heavy machinery and hard hards left no doubt as to what was being celebrated, Robert Sommers, CEO of Carpe Diem Learning Systems, reminded the crowd that the real celebration, and the real work was yet to come.

“This is the easy part, the hard part is educating kids. That’s the real job,” Sommers said.

Valerie Robertson, principal of the Westwood campus was on hand and ready to accept that challenge.

“If you haven’t noticed, I’ve been walking around with a big smile on my face,” Robertson said.

If you ask Fleege, he’ll tell you that smile is the smile of confidence, because the administration of Carpe Diem Innovative School – Westwood believes that the students in their classrooms are getting the best education available.

State Representative Ina Minjarez and District 6 City Council Representative Ray Lopez join Lucas Rico (in the hard hat) and future students for the groundbreaking ceremony of Carpe Diem Innovative School - Westwood. Photo by Bekah McNeel

State Representative Ina Minjarez and District 6 City Council Representative Ray Lopez join Lucas Rico (in the hard hat) and future students for the groundbreaking ceremony of Carpe Diem Innovative School – Westwood. Photo by Bekah McNeel

“I think that Carpe Diem is what the future of education is going to look like,” says Brandon Seale, board chair of Carpe Diem Innovative Schools – San Antonio.

The hallmark of the system is blended learning. In addition to instructional classroom hours, the students spend half of their day in the learning center working with a software program that has been tailor-made to their academic levels. That’s “levels,” plural. Carpe Diem does not expect that a student will be on an even grade level across all subjects. While a few classes will be age/grade specific, such as state mandated 7th-grade Texas history (which, every out-of-state charter administrator finds worth mentioning), the rest will be grouped according to mastery level. Their highly tailored approach allows individuals to accelerate in one subject, while they work toward mastery in another.

“Our curriculum doesn’t just have a personalized component, the whole thing is personalized,” Fleege said.

The mastery component is another distinctive. Carpe Diem’s method treats mastery as a process, not a test score. They are not allowed to proceed to the next level until they have reached 80% or higher on all assessments. However, because they are working online, teachers have access to detailed records that show where the student is struggling. The teachers, who are freed from administrative minutia by the softwares record keeping, can then focus on instruction to help individual students in areas where they struggle. Rather than starting over and retaking the entire level, the students can revisit particular subjects or skills and work toward their 80% mastery.

State Representative Ina Minjarez voices her support for Carpe Diem Innovative School - Westwood. Photo by Bekah McNeel

State Representative Ina Minjarez voices her support for Carpe Diem Innovative School – Westwood. Photo by Bekah McNeel

“In our curriculum you can get one of three grades: A, B, or the opportunity to do it again,” Fleege said.

The benefit of this approach, according to Fleege, is twofold. First, students are not allowed to build on a shaky foundation. Trying to build calculus on 60% mastery of algebra is a doomed enterprise. Second, it keeps students from being held back in areas where they excel while they work on areas where they need more time.

The individualized approach also anticipates that not every kid will go to college. However, it is Carpe Diem’s goal that every student be well prepared for that option, and thus they intend to educate future tradesmen, craftsmen, entrepreneurs, and service members to the same standards. On every student’s workspace in the learning center will hang a card that reads, “Aspiring (career) …” Fleege anticipated changing those cards repeatedly as the students grow, focus, and learn, but whether the aspiration of the moment is academic, professional, or athletic, Fleege intends to honor that.

*Featured/top image: Future students join administrators, elected leaders, and philanthropists in the ground breaking ceremony for Carpe Diem Innovative School – Westwood. Photo by Bekah McNeel