Blended learning draws educators to Harlingen for a closer look

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HARLINGEN — Kayla Lara leaned into her laptop, tapping with sharp focus on her keyboard as she worked on her blended learning assignment.

“I’m working on a comprehensive practice set,” said Kayla, 12, a student in Kathy Sanchez’s sixth grade reading language arts class at Memorial Middle School.

It was a Thursday morning and a sort of buzzing energy filled the rooms and the hallways of Memorial Middle School as visitors far and near observed the process of and the power of blended learning.

“I say that blended learning is all the best teaching practices that we’ve ever known,” said Jessica Hruska, core leader of blended learning and innovative practices. HCISD has used the blended model, funded by a Raising Blended Learners Grant from the Charles Butt Foundation, for about three years.

So successful has been its implementation of the program that representatives from the Charles Butt Foundation as well as the Floresville and Weslaco school districts converged on both Memorial as well as Bonham Elementary on Thursday.

In Kathy Sanchez’s class, Weslaco ISD administrator Scott Amdahl along with several colleagues watched closely and took notes while students worked on their individualized assignments and their teachers provided personalized guidance.

“Harlingen ISD and Weslaco ISD both received the Raising Blended Learners Grant,” said Amdahl who is in charge of blended learning at the Weslaco district.

The grant from the Charles Butt Foundation, he said, is intended to help implement blended learning strategies throughout Texas schools.

“We had our showcase yesterday, but we were focusing on elementary schools,” he said. “Here we’re primarily interested in seeing the middle school model because that’s our next step. We wanted to see from their good work here at the middle school so we can go back and get our middle schools started.”

Blended learning, Hruska said, incorporates technology to enhance the classroom experience and to provide students with a personalized path through learning.

HCISD showcased its blended learning program on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024. (Courtesy: HCSID)

“We use different applications, different programs, to do that as well as a model of blended learning that we use in HCISD which is called stations rotation,” Hruska said. “In a station rotation, basically what that looks like is teachers pooling a small group of students based on their data to go over things that they need to work on.”

In Kathy Sanchez’s class, students sat at moveable and interlocking tables and chairs working on their assignments and exercises tailored to their needs.

“Blended learning is a personalized approach to teaching,” Sanchez said as she worked with a student.

“It offers the kids lots of flexibility, and the teacher kind of gets to decide how flexible she wants to be,” Sanchez continued. “I think I’m a pretty flexible teacher in that my kids get to decide which assignment they are going to work on.”

That individualized instruction is based on student scores, Amdahl said.

“In the past, the teacher would do a lot of whole group instruction which is great for kids right in the middle but not so good for higher achievers and those who are struggling,” Amdahl said. “Through blended they can use data to kind of customize and personalize learning so that they can break into small groups and they can work on what they need to work on.”

He used as an example the scenario of two kindergarteners. One child is still working on his letters, while the other is reading books. Certainly the two kids require a very different kind of instruction, and blended learning offers customized assignments tailored to those differing needs.

“This helps kids where they’re at achieve what they’re ready for,” Amdahl said. “It’s made a tremendous difference for us, and I think Harlingen as well.”

Kayla liked the new blended learning system.

“I can work at my own pace on the stuff I struggle with,” she said. “It helps me improve more.”