In Catholic Schools, an Experiment with Blended Learning

Students leave their classroom at Dayton’s Immaculate Conception School in Dayton, Ohio. Immaculate Conception was able to increase its enrollment by 90 students in its first year of partnership with Seton Education.

Catholic schools have dealt with declining enrollment and rising costs since the 1960s, leading to widespread closures that were accelerated by the pandemic (See “In Pandemic, Private Schools Face Peril,” Features, Fall 2020). To help Catholic schools regain their financial footing, Seton Blended Learning Network, a program within the nonprofit organization Seton Education Partners, has teamed up with schools to promote blended learning and increase enrollment at a faster pace.

The main driver of Catholic schools’ present plight has been their human capital model. Historically, Catholic schools relied upon members of religious vocations, like priests and sisters, to teach students. They had the gravitas, the support of parents to teach large classes, and the religious commitment to take very low salaries. As religious vocations declined, Catholic schools had to turn to lay teachers and administrators, increasing costs and decreasing class sizes.

Small class sizes are now a feature of many Catholic schools across the country and a selling point for parents. The problem is that the smaller the class size, the higher the per-pupil expense, even when the salaries of the staff are well below those of the employees in most public schools. Particularly for schools that want to serve low-income populations, and even for schools that want to serve middle-class families, this makes the financial model problematic.

The Seton Network

Seton Education Partners is working with 14 Catholic schools around the country to change that equation. As Emily Gilbride, director of the network, said: “We will reduce their per-pupil operating costs.” In the schools where Seton works, it encourages classrooms to grow, often to an average of 30 students per class, up from 15. To cope with these additional students, classes are divided into two or three smaller instructional units that progress through the day in what Gilbride calls a “rotational small-group model.” While one group is working with the teacher, the others are on Chromebooks, working with computer-adaptive software like i-Read, Imagine Math, and Lexia Learning. Seton uses 14 different software platforms in all, depending on the school, grade, and student need.

A maximum of half the class is on computers at a time, so Seton partner schools need only a two-to-one ratio of children to Chromebooks, instead of the more costly and intensive one-to-one programs that many schools use. This model also requires little change to the physical structures of schools and classrooms. Usually, Seton just adds some tables along one classroom wall to serve as computer stations, plus some kidney-shaped tables for small-group work with teachers.

St. Joseph Catholic School in Cincinnati, Ohio, was able to grow to 282 students from 202 in its initial year of partnership. As most of those children participate in Ohio’s EdChoice school voucher program, each additional pupil represented $4,650 in new revenue for the school. All told, that meant almost $400,000 more coming into the school on an annual basis.

The most recent addition to the Seton portfolio, the Immaculate Conception School in Dayton, Ohio, was able to increase its enrollment by 90 students in its first year of partnership. Again, this means hundreds of thousands more dollars in revenue every year. For small Catholic schools, this is a massive swing in enrollment and revenue, and a massive opportunity to serve more students.

Moving to larger classes and blended learning hasn’t been easy, however. Both parents and teachers need convincing, and teachers need training and technical help. With respect to parents, Gilbride argues that focusing on personalization through computer-adaptive software is a big selling point. Also, schools don’t double their class sizes overnight. Usually, they add a few children per year, which cushions the shock, allowing parents to ease into the new model. The story for teachers is similar. By easing into the model, providing instructional coaches for the first two years of partnership, and focusing on the upside, Seton can win teachers over. If the partnership helps prevent a school from closing, it means that teachers keep their jobs.

“We want to place each child’s God-given potential at the forefront of what we’re doing,” Gilbride says, which helps focus both families and teachers on what is important.

Seton’s partnership is a multiyear agreement with schools to help get blended-learning programs up and running and to support schools as they transition to operating the programs independently. Seton fundraises for the startup costs of the transition, which can range from $600,000 for a small school to $850,000 for a larger one. This money goes toward purchasing hardware and software, upgrading servers and wiring, and hiring an instructional coach for teachers. After that, schools pay a fee to the network to continue to participate. Seton says its bulk purchasing of software licenses, which are then made available to network schools, saves participating schools more than they pay in network fees. Software licenses are expensive.

For the Seton model to work, however, several stars need to align. There must be leadership in the school willing to do something different. There must be someone who understands the need to increase revenue at a faster rate than expenses. There must be teachers and parents willing to buy in. The model requires not only a shift to blended learning, but a school culture centered on doing something different to balance the budget and educate children. Not every school has this kind of leadership or community.

What Can We Learn from Seton Network Schools?

Blended learning is not for everyone, but Gilbride offers two lessons that apply to private and public schools alike.

First, schools looking to try blended learning need not plan for one-to-one student-to-device ratios. The one-to-one phenomenon has swept the nation, and schools have been purchasing huge numbers of tablets and Chromebooks to meet demand. These devices require updates to servers and routers and sometimes even electrical wiring in schools. Tablets must be maintained, and they require tech support, and the higher the number of these devices is, the higher those associated costs are. Yes, if class sizes are increasing or other changes are being made, then the fact that children are getting their very own computers or tablets can help blunt criticism. But blunting criticism in the short term is not worth the trade-off in the long term.

Gilbride argues that a two-to-one ratio is better. Her primary argument is that it “allows teachers to teach.” Rather than having students constantly glued to devices, students use devices at some times and don’t use them at others. There’s time for traditional instruction or small-group work and time to work with adaptive software. This structure allows teachers and software to do what they each do best.

Two-to-one is also undeniably cheaper. Buying, supporting, and maintaining half the number of devices of a one-to-one program can represent serious cost savings. For schools with very narrow margins in their budgets, this can be a gamechanger. There are still substantial startup costs, though, and Seton needs to do fundraising on the front end to make the transition.

Second, Gilbride encourages schools to start small. The software itself need not cost much. Numerous free, high-quality software programs have many of the features of the software that Seton and other blended-learning providers use. They are not as fully articulated as the paid programs, but they can give schools a rough idea of what teachers and students will be able to do if they switch to a blended model. Examples include ISL, No Red Ink, and, perhaps most famously, Khan Academy.

Transitioning to a blended model is a huge shift for students, teachers, leaders, and parents. It is not something that should be done lightly or quickly. It can go wrong, as some schools learned with attempts to shift instruction rapidly online amid the pandemic. Schools curious about the approach can try blended learning with these free tools in a single classroom or grade to see how the model works, rather than scale up to the entire school immediately. Teachers and principals can dip their toes in the water and see what the temperature is. Do teachers like the model? Are children responding to it? What are the practical concerns, such as infrastructure upgrades, schedule changes, and so on? In short, is this something worth trying on a larger scale? Only after a successful pilot program will schools need to make the large investments in equipment and training to move entirely to a blended model.

These lessons apply beyond blended learning. Any decision to use technology should focus on the problem that technology is trying to solve. No matter what the technology of tomorrow will be, starting with small pilot programs is a wise first step for schools. Also, thinking about how students can share resources, instead of requiring one device for every child, can be a way to save costs.

Blended learning is not just for schools facing fiscal difficulty or on the verge of closure. It can also be of use to rural schools that have difficulty recruiting teachers for higher level math and science courses and that wish to provide challenging coursework for more advanced students. Blended learning can change more than just the economics of a school; it can also change the quality of the education a school provides.

Reprinted and adapted by permission of the Publisher. From Frederick M. Hess and Brandon L. Wright, eds., Getting the Most Bang for the Education Buck, New York: Teachers College Press. Copyright © 2020 by Teachers College, Columbia University. All rights reserved.

Michael Q. McShane is the director of national research at EdChoice.

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