Initial Conclusions of Hybrid High’s First Year

Less than six months ago, I was given an opportunity to take the torch at USC Hybrid High to refine the current model and expand our schools in Los Angeles and across the country.  I started as a founding principal at Chicago’s Noble Street in 2006 and over five years, helped Noble Street expand to 10 campuses and started one as a founding principal, UIC College Prep, which continues to be the #1 non-selective school in Chicago.  

Even with those experiences, I knew that taking over a school and performing a mini-turnaround in three months was going to be a challenge.  During my interview process with our supportive board members for the CEO position, I outlined my plan as conditions for my acceptance.  Six months later, I am more than happy to be back doing aspirational work that influences schools and leaders across the country in a positive way.  

After observing USC Hybrid High for over 60 hours and interviewing all of the staff and students in my first week, my initial conclusions of Hybrid High’s first year were:  

Experienced start-up leadership and strong teachers matter. I know that this isn’t revolutionary, but it is worth stating for anyone who wants to start a blended learning school.  Starting a school is really hard.  Starting a new model and starting a school for the first time is infinitely harder.  How are you supposed to focus on the model if you are creating common cultural and operational systems like attendance, parent-teacher conferences and teacher data conferences for the first time?  We needed leaders who have started successful schools in the past so school culture and operational challenges wouldn’t be more of a challenge than developing a new model for learning.  

Culture still comes first. If there was only one thing we learned in charters v1.0, it is that culture matters.  And I am not talking about culture in the sense that everyone is walking in single file lines.  I am talking about holding students to high expectations for behavior and having rewards and consequences for every positive and negative behavior we expect or don’t tolerate without excuses.  This is even more important if you are building for open learning environments.  How do we plan, model, train and hold students and staff accountable for the culture we want to create?  We needed to prioritize this so learning could happen.  

Self-paced learning needs a floor. Unfortunately, after year 1, we found when left to “work at their own pace,” a majority of our students did not complete two semesters of each of their core courses.  Teachers are still very important in the blended world, and their new roles will become even more reliant on their ability to manage and motivate in our model.  One of our teachers, now a leader in our school, had the best results because he ensured that everyone was at least moving at a “minimum pace” or a floor.  He provided a lot of encouragement and support, tracked each student’s progress, and motivated them to make constant progress.  In turn, students did almost twice as much in his class than in other classes.  Creating a floor, showing you care, and tracking progress got more out of our students than letting them “work at their own pace” alone.  

We need to build an infrastructure for more than one digital solution. Last year, we had all of our students use APEX, a digital curriculum.  In many ways, APEX is a great tool; however, last year we based our whole school around the sole use of APEX.  What we found was that teachers heavily supplemented it to fit the needs of our students and many of our students gamed the program so teachers didn’t find the data useful.  This year we built a tech infrastructure that allows for multiple digital content solutions. We gave our teachers the autonomy and the flexibility in their budgets to select digital products while holding them accountable for their decisions.  And only three months in, our teachers are finding great content and innovative strategies that are leading to strong initial gains faster than any central office could.  

Physical space and furniture needs to match the learning goals. Last year, we bought only tables and couches so students could learn in a social setting.  Unfortunately, this also meant that even in times when a student wanted to work by themselves or when a teacher wanted to administer an exam, our students were seated in a way that promoted socialization.  When you put individual content in front of a young adult and surround them with their friends, socialization wins most of the time.  This year, we are using furniture that allows for flexible learning spaces (both individual and small and large group). We are also working to dampen the sounds in certain work spaces to accommodate for rooms that desire to simultaneously have individual and social working areas.  

In addition to these five major changes we have implemented many others to support USC Hybrid High 2.0, including a new SIS and data integration solution, a switch to Chromebooks from Macbook Airs, a new assessment system aligned to the ACT and Common Core standards, a live dashboard aligned to our strategic plan, and many new school traditions.   While these changes happened quickly, we knew that the change management process also had to be deliberate and prudent.  This included interviewing the full school community, showing the data from year 1 to our board, staff, students and parents to justify our set of changes, and giving our community a vision for where we are headed and the phases we need to pass through to get there.  Fortunately, all of us want to get to the same destination: 100% of our graduates accepted into a 4-year university with 90% of our students persisting after their first year of college.  

After all of this, in only six short months, our school is now a vibrant and positive place for students to work at their own pace with the support and motivation of an entrepreneurial and joyful staff.  Our Quarter 1 benchmarks are in and we are showing signs of growth in all subjects.  We have a long way before we declare our mission accomplished, but having seen many successful start-ups in my past, I am confident in our school’s success.  If you are ever in Los Angeles, please come by for a visit. -