The Right Mix: How One Los Angeles School is Blending a Curriculum for Personalized Learning
By Susan Headden
Patty Berganza is a chatty 16-year-old with a mouthful of braces, a thick mane of black hair, and a lightning fast brain. The last of these left her so bored at her previous Los Angeles high school that she racked up more than 49 unexcused absences in one year and earned a reputation as a slacker. Despite her dismal grade point average and enormous gaps in knowledge, she was continually promoted to the next grade. She never thought about college, because nobody ever talked about it. Indeed, she says of her previous high school, “I don’t think my teachers even knew my name.” In many ways, Patty represented countless students who graduate at abysmal rates but who have the capacity to do infinitely better. Unlike others, she found a new school that has helped her reach that capacity.
Where Patty once routinely slumped at the back of the classroom texting her friends about her disregard for her teachers and her courses, she now perches front and center, attentive and engaged. She has flown ahead of her peers in math and earned an overall grade point average of 3.28. An unofficial student ambassador, she takes the lead in discussion groups, tutors other students after school, and talks hopefully about applying to the University of California at Berkeley. That particular college preference may or may not work out, but one tends to believe Patty’s teachers when they tell this effervescent teen, “you have the potential to be somebody.” What is remarkable is that Patty is realizing that potential in a classroom with 48 students.
That’s right—here at the Alliance Tennenbaum Family Technology High School, a charter school on L.A.’s eastside, every teacher is responsible for at least a third more students than any sound educator would recommend. But these are no traditional classrooms. The school uses a hybrid model that combines online and traditional instruction and allows students to learn in three different ways. On this particular fall day, 16 students are getting traditional in-person instruction in Algebra I from teacher Wendy Chaves; roughly the same number are doing math problems online; and still others are gathered in clusters of four tutoring each other. No matter where they are in the rotation, they see the student-to-teacher ratio as what it effectively is—an ideal 16-to-1.
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