Establishing a new blended learning program means stepping out in a whole new direction

by Mitch Mraz

I’m a financial analyst who wants to apply my skills to help America’s public schools. Usually, I’m elbow-deep in reports, or parsing spreadsheets on a screen, or in planning and review meetings with schools and board committees.

But for three weeks this summer, I left all that behind. I stepped out of my financial modeling role at Afton Partners to intern with the Chicago-based startup charter management organization, Intrinsic Schools.

The experience was exhilarating. My time with Intrinsic included the first week of the school year—and it was the first time I’d interacted with students and observed the typical blended-learning school day since joining Afton. I’ve reviewed many blended learning school business and financial models. When I do, I’m reminded of the enthusiasm around blended learning’s potential to enhance the individual student learning experience.

But it’s a different experience altogether—and it’s especially cool—to see students getting fired up about learning, getting used to their brand-new Google Chromebooks, and starting their courses. (For a look at the school coming together, watch the video Day One: Welcoming Intrinsic Schools’ Inaugural Class on the Intrinsic blog.)

School’s in Session: About Intrinsic

Intrinsic is currently in a temporary facility in Chicago’s Loop district, while a permanent facility is being built on the city’s northwest side. During my first week, I met with folks from a charter school development fund that is a potential candidate for financing the project. The project’s architects talked us through blueprints and walked us through the space—a 57,000 sq. ft. building previously occupied by a lumber company.

Intrinsic worked with the architects to design a facility that will accommodate their specific model of 93 student pods. Each grade level at Intrinsic has one Humanities pod and one STEM pod, and each has two teachers and an assistant to serve 93 students. They also have dedicated spaces within each pod for independent student learning, computer learning, group projects, and an acoustically sound seminar room or science lab.

As Afton has seen in our work with grantees in the Center on Reinventing Public Education’s Next Generation Learning Challenges, blended learning school models use space in an innovative way. I was happy to witness a small part of the design and construction process.

Intrinsic prides itself on its staff, and rightfully so. Its master teachers in particular have extensive, diverse experience teaching in their respective subjects. I sat in on a professional development session provided by Facing History that was less focused on building technical skills and more on general classroom awareness around stereotypes and prejudice. I participated in a group discussion where Intrinsic teachers and administrators shared their thoughts and past experiences related to topics administered by the folks at Facing History.

A Welcome Surprise: Focusing on the Environment

I learned at school for sure during this internship. I hadn’t realized how many little things go into getting a facility ready for the first day of school: last-minute purchases, compliance issues with Chicago Public Schools (CPS), and general setup. People wear a lot of hats!

At the same time, every staff member has a specific and crucial role, and must be focused on what he/she has to get done for the school to function optimally. This includes decisions about recruiting, curriculum, financing, technology, etc. You have to be willing to get your hands dirty if you’re a part of a start-up, regardless of your role, and I saw that willingness in everyone at Intrinsic. And everyone had a good time playing their various roles.

Aesthetics are critical, too. Intrinsic is not a typical school, and one visit to their facilities (both temporary and permanent) confirms that. I was surprised to see how much time and money the school was investing in turning the temporary facility (in use for just this school year) from old, grey office space to what it looks like today.

The Challenges Ahead: Curricula, Technology, Compliance

There’s no doubt that Intrinsic will face challenges in the years ahead and will need to evolve and adjust, just as students do in the classroom. For example, Intrinsic will have an evolving online curriculum, and the school’s teachers and administrators know that there will be kinks to work out in their technology plans.

Curating content is also an arduous process, and Intrinsic is working to build a new blended learning model driven significantly by its teachers. There may be more focus on selecting the right curriculum and getting every teacher up to speed on the Learning Management System (LMS) functionality than they want, but they’re aware of this challenge.

The schools will also have to determine a policy around device replacement. (In the first week of school, two students’ Chromebook screens cracked!) Staying flexible and learning what works and what doesn’t is a task that Director of Technology Marcos Alcozer, anticipates and looks forward to.

Another challenge will be balancing the CMO’s focus on growth with focus on existing school operations. Intrinsic plans to open a second school in the fall of 2015, and eventually to have opened five schools in five years. There are always obstacles in opening schools, especially without a proven track record for your specific model. Intrinsic needs to focus on the first year of school and also find time for all the things that come with planning for the CMO’s future schools.

Learning At School? The Afton Way

My goal in taking on this internship was to get away from financial modeling for a little while, so I could better understand the processes that eventually result in line items on a school or district budget. I’ve been able to meet with school, district, and CMO administrators for my specific projects at Afton, but I never had the opportunity to follow them around for a few weeks!

Every moment I spent at Intrinsic had some value for how I view our work in public education reform. I witnessed so much first-hand that had previously been just a number on a financial template. In particular, Brian Kates, the Director of Finance & Operations at Intrinsic, involved me in many different ways—chiefly by letting me follow him to meeting after meeting. Getting a perspective on the bewildering range of his day-to-day activities during start-up definitely helped me put things in perspective.

On reflection, I was back at school—with all the excitement and nervousness and energy that a new learning environment brings. I was a student again. But this time I could sit down and discuss with multiple different team members—teachers, administrators, managers—why they decided to join Intrinsic and break away from the traditional school model. It’s great to know that there is so much enthusiasm in this field. And it’s great to have been a small help to what I’m sure will be a great success.

Mitch Mraz is an Analyst at Afton Partners. In August 2013, he helped launch a new blended learning school in Chicago—the newly founded Intrinsic charter school.