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How does the Carpe Diem charter model work, in practice?

Saturday, March 16, 2013 - 9:39 am

Full disclosure: I had never heard the phrase “blended learning” before a recent public hearing to discuss the proposed Carpe Diem Summit Campus, a charter school that will be located on the former campus of Taylor University.

The concept seems simple enough: Students perform a majority of their work online. Classroom instruction is meant to provide a starting point, as well as strengthening and clarification in the various disciplines and topics that any school-aged children would need to master, before students begin their daily course work on computers.

That's fine: I understood the words, the description. But what I couldn't quite wrap my mind around was this simple question: How does it actually work?

How much do students sit in front of computer monitors? How does the classroom look or feel? If they are actually online, what stops them from looking up any old answer from any old source, instead of learning the kinds of processes necessary in math and science, for example?

In short, how, exactly, does anybody know if anyone is actually doing something or learning anything -- before statewide standardized testing rolls around to provide some metrics?

I'm not so old that computers hadn't started to appear in schools when I attended, but I'm not young enough to quite grasp how the "blended learning" touted in the Carpe Diem model would be of use for dozens, perhaps hundreds, of students.

So when the opportunity was made available to me, I decided to see for myself.

I took a trip to Indianapolis, to Carpe Diem's recently opened Meridian Campus. I took a tour of the facility, asked questions, went into a classroom and observed others. I saw students working. I saw how the model worked.

It was an eye-opening experience.

During the recent public meeting, the presenters on behalf of Carpe Diem were taken to task over the usage of this phrase, admittedly paraphrased, “It's not for everyone.” From where I sat, it appeared that those who were not in favor of the charter didn't mind twisting the phrase into the worst connotation possible.

I don't have to be squeamish about saying it: The Carpe Diem model absolutely is not for everyone. And, depending on a child's interests and the beliefs of parents, that is totally fine.

The school doesn't offer fine arts or music classes, or extracurricular activities like sports. No school plays, drama club, things like that. There is a fitness area, where students are instructed about healthy living and can perform calisthenics and use some exercise machines, but no gym class, per se.

So, if parents' idea of education is to have those options available, or if a student has shown an aptitude for music or theater or athletics -- and for the record, there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of those things -- then no, the Carpe Diem model is not for you. No one has to get bent out of shape about that, particularly when there are numerous other schools that have each of those kinds of offerings.

If a student thrives on social interaction and is actually more comfortable in larger schools, enjoys having different teachers in different classes in different years, then no, the Carpe Diem model is not for them.

Instead, from my view, the Carpe Diem model is based on one word: Production.

Not that other schools, and other systems, aren't. But the Carpe Diem model requires consistent initiative by students for production – and make no mistake, that production is monitored closely.

The school day at Indianapolis' Meridian Campus, for example, starts with an assembly where messages of the day are disseminated and the previous days' top producers are named.

Why does that matter? Because Carpe Diem doesn't shy away from the fact that in life, production does matter. Yes, quality of work in a school is intrinsic and expected, and yes, at Carpe Diem, work is evaluated and grades earned and given.

But Carpe Diem also attempts to teach students that some life skills – like self-motivation and the setting of goals, as well as the ability to work unsupervised and still be productive – translates into learning.

How so? Each of the five photos and captions attached with this story contains observations I made and answers to questions I asked during my tour and hopefully serve as a primer for how the Carpe Diem model works. The primer is not meant to be a catch-all for every question a parent might have, nor an endorsement of the school itself -- as always with school choice, it is the responsibility of adults to engage, ask questions, and determine if there is a fit for their children.

The school is set to open this fall at 1025 W. Rudisill Blvd., if conditions set by the Indiana Charter Schools Board are met. There would be a projected 130 students: 30 in sixth grade and 25 each in grades seven through 11. There would be no seniors in the first year of the school's operation.