Rocky Mountain Blend: Great Teachers, Strong Culture

Federal & National Policy, Leadership, Learning

The best way to understand the power of blended learning is to experience it. That’s why school field trips remain one of our biggest recommendations for kickstarting education innovation in a classroom, school, district or state. It’s also why the annual Digital Learning Now Policymaker Pre-Summit is one of our favorite parts of ExcelinEd’s annual Summit on Education Reform.

This year more than 50 policy makers and influencers joined education innovation experts from ExcelinEd, The Christensen Institute, The Learning Accelerator, Getting Smart and the Colorado Department of Education to learn more about the state of education innovation in Denver (one of the Smart Cities) and to see blended learning in action at Rocky Mountain Prep.

Rocky Mountain Prep (RMP) is a growing network of elementary public charter schools in Denver. The RMP Creekside campus we visited serves students from Pre-K through 4th grade, with a student population just over 450. The RMP 2 campus just opened this year, with a student population of 130 from Pre-K through 1st grade. Across the network, nearly 80% of scholars qualify for free and reduced lunch, and around 30% of scholars are English Language Learners. RMP uses an individual-rotation model of blended learning coupled with a rigorous academic program, and personalized supports for what RMP calls their “scholars.”

Our time at RMP (and at most of the blended learning schools we visit) revealed that technology is only a vehicle for–and not the driving force of–powerful learning experiences. As TLA’s Lisa Duty explained, blended learning is about more than just the technology.

The shining stars at RMP aren’t the devices or the tools themselves–although they’re putting some great ones to use such as ST Math that the School Leader Jen Heller described as an “incredible program” particularly for their ELL population. She appreciates that ST Math encourages kids to think hard about solutions and that it provides instructional feedback.

RMP uses Raz-Kids for leveled e-reading starting in second grade. Silent reading is always followed by a thinking or application prompt to develop close reading skills.

From the moment you walk in the door at RMP the school culture takes center stage and maintains the spotlight as you move from classroom to classroom. That’s largely because RMP has twin focuses on RIGOR and JOY–undergirded by the school’s character development program of core PEAK values – perseverance, excellence, adventure and kindness. (Check out the Rocky Mountain Prep – Rigor and Joy video describing this in more detail.)

Policymaker participants were inspired by what they saw in the classrooms – from student engagement, to student-teacher interactions and classroom management.

With that inspiration in mind, visitors were asked to consider the role of policy in enabling new learning models to grow and thrive in their states, by exploring questions like: What policy levers are available in your state to encourage and support new learning models? And what barriers stand in the way of scaling innovative school models in your state?

Common policy issues discussed included infrastructure (broadband, connectivity, etc), teacher/leader preparation and professional development, class size restrictions, funding and seat time. Policy solutions that interested much of the room included Course Access policies and Innovation Zones/Waivers.

The conversations across all the working groups revealed a set of common themes and lessons:

  • There’s no blueprint for education policy that will work in every state. The role of policy is to enable innovation by removing barriers and encouraging/motivating it.
  • Just putting technology on top of the same traditional system isn’t enough. Consider other parts of the system–from the use of time to staffing patterns–that must also shift.
  • Lead with the problem you’re trying to solve (improved access, better outcomes, etc) and not with the technology itself. Make decisions about what the learning models will be based on those goals.
  • Know that these shifts take time. Start small and keep moving forward. While risk aversion can hold states back, every state can encourage innovation with an an incubator (like Denver Public Schools’ Imaginarium) that removes barriers, gives schools permission to innovate, creates incentives and provides access to expertise and support.
  • While there is no “blueprint,” there are best practices and an emerging set of proofpoints. States can learn from each other and from resources like Digital Learning Now’s annual report card to inform policy in their own states.

For more information on the role of education policy in supporting innovations in learning see:


For more on the @ExcelinEd National Summit on Education Reform visit the #EIE15 hashtag on Twitter.

ExcelinEd and MIND Research Institute are Getting Smart Advocacy Partners.

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