Carpe Diem Innovative School—Westwood is in its third year of operation as a public charter school in southwestern San Antonio. After a rough start, it is rebuilding its personalized learning model with new leadership and key changes to classroom activities and the bonds between teachers and students.
I had been to the campus, at 8038 W. Military Dr., San Antonio, TX 78227 (map), for the groundbreaking and the ribbon cutting ceremonies, and I was due for a return visit. The open-enrollment public charter school serves grades 6-12 in a compact, modern building. As of this writing, the school is taking applications for students at all grade levels. Call the school at 210-774-9284 to request a tour.
Carpe Diem Westwood is facing a challenge this year. The school opened in 2015 with support from Choose to Succeed as part of a strategy to bring high-performing charter school operators to San Antonio. However, Carpe Diem Westwood has so far not lived up to expectations: the school earned a rating of IR (Improvement Required) for year one and year two. (For more information, see the Texas Education Agency’s Department of Performance Reporting.) Charter schools must close if they are rated IR for three years in a row. A lot is riding on how well Carpe Diem Westwood’s students perform on this year’s standardized tests.
Year three is a time for turnaround. The board parted ways with an out-of-state management company and hired a strong local leader, Assistant Superintendent James Bailey, who joined in February 2017. Also, Rick Ogston, the legendary founder of Carpe Diem High School in Yuma, Arizona, has been traveling frequently to San Antonio to serve as Superintendent.
During my recent campus visit, Bailey and Ogston talked with me about what is different at Carpe Diem Westwood in year three. I visited classrooms and work spaces to see how these changes are happening in practice. Many of these strategies will have face validity to busy adults who similarly use technology reach their goals. Blended learning at Carpe Diem Westwood is preparing students for independent, productive lives in ways that are rarely seen in public schools. These strategies can be grouped into several areas: advisory groups, blended learning classrooms, Expedition Fridays, and student agency.
Advisory groups are a way to bring social-emotional learning to students. Each advisory group of students meets with a faculty member daily—and Bailey has his own advisory group, too. On Mondays through Thursdays, advisory groups meet for 40 minutes a day; on Fridays, the meeting is a two-hour block, part of Expedition Fridays.
Personalized learning is especially beneficial for two types of students: the highly motivated students who want to accelerate their progress, and the students who are “academically at-risk,” as Ogston put it, and have gaps they need to fill before they can truly succeed. The current student population at Carpe Diem Westwood has a significant number of students who were not successful at their previous schools. They need teachers to meet with them in small groups and build a culture of learning.
“Academically at-risk students develop behaviors to avoid academics,” explained Ogston. They are good kids, but they have behaviors that make it hard for them to learn. For example, when facing a setback, having a short temper can make it harder to get back on track. Advisory groups work on habits that will help the students in life. They learn about resilience, communication skills, self-awareness, and the importance of community service.
Recently, the students have been working on their purpose statements, which will help them set life goals. Working backwards from their purpose statements, they can set intermediate goals for career and college. Letting the students derive their goals based on purpose statements that they wrote themselves is part of giving students a sense of agency.
The advisory groups are also the setting for practicing restorative justice. During the longer Friday sessions, the students and their advisor sit in a relationship circle. As they pass the talking stick—on this campus, a mini Louisville Slugger baseball bat—the students raise the issues that they want to discuss. At a recent session, a student raised a concern about the suicide rate among Hispanic males in Bexar County.
Also during the long Friday meetings, students meet with their advisors for one-on-one coaching and goal setting. Getting the students involved in tracking their own progress is essential to giving them a sense of agency and to helping them learn to make the best use of their classroom time and independent work time.
Blended Learning Classrooms
In year three, the administration of Carpe Diem Westwood is committed to properly implementing blended learning in the classrooms. A common misunderstanding of blended learning (and part of the problem during the first two years) leads to over-reliance on online learning, in which students mostly work by themselves at a computer and rarely interact with a teacher. True blended learning involves significant classroom time, while leveraging the advantages of online learning, such as personalization and differentiation.
During my tour, Bailey logged in to Google Classroom and showed me a teacher’s view of the system. Each class is represented by a box on the screen. Within that class, the topics are based on the TEKS—what Texas public schools are required to teach, and what the students will be assessed on during standardized testing. Within each topic, the teacher adds links to programs like Khan Academy, Gooru, and Reflex for math, and can link to articles and primary sources from the Library of Congress in social studies.
In the classroom, most students have laptops on their desks and are logged in to Google Classroom while the teacher is presenting. There is also a back-and-forth discussion about the material.
During independent work time, the students continue using the online resources.
Middle school students work independently in cubicles.
High school students have an open-plan space, a lot like a college library. Doing their independent work on campus, rather than at home, gives students the benefit of quickly turning to teachers with questions.
For every student, Google Classroom shows which units are done or not done. Also, the students keep three-ring binders with paper trackers—printed-out spreadsheets—showing their assignments and what still needs to be completed. The trackers are part of the goal-setting discussions with advisors on Fridays. Successful blended learning depends on students developing the social-emotional skills to manage their time and work with purpose.
The Friday schedule is so different from the other days of the week that it has earned the designation Expedition Fridays. Earlier, in the discussion of advisory groups, I described the two-hour advisory group meeting on Friday, and how it includes restorative justice circles, writing purpose statements, goal setting, one-on-one coaching, and other aspects of social-emotional learning. The Friday meetings also include discussions of mindfulness and meditation techniques. Students choose a particular trait or habit that they are going to work on, and explain their progress during Friday meetings.
In addition to the long advisory group meeting, Fridays are broken into a few longer class periods. (A regular day has nine class periods.) Students have the opportunity to pursue their special interests. High school electives include foreign languages, entrepreneurship, marketing, and law enforcement. Middle school electives include fine arts, math enrichment, and Odyssey of the Mind.
Fridays are important to the weekly learning cycle because they are an opportunity to reflect on the past week and set goals for the next week. Students can evaluate what went well and what positive behaviors led to that success. Letting students practice managing their time gives them the independence they will need in college and in life.
Students develop a sense of agency by having a voice in decisions at the school. During my interview with Ogston and Bailey, the speakers started playing pop music—a song that the students had selected to play during transitions. Of course, there are limits: as the transition period came to a close, the music switched to the theme from The Lone Ranger—a signal to hurry up.
Carpe Diem Westwood is forming a student council. Each advisory group will elect a representative and a senator for the student council, and the school administration will act as the executive branch. It will be interesting to learn how the student council evolves.
As mentioned earlier, the students can see their progress in Google Classroom and on their paper trackers. They know where they are behind, and have the choice to work ahead. They go over their progress in advisory groups. The students know how they are doing on assessments and how that affects which units they are assigned. When they have done well, they are eager to show off their accomplishments to visitors. These assignments tie in with their college and career goals and their purpose statements. The students are treated with respect and given the information they need to plan their futures.
To get a sense of the student experience, Bailey introduced me to a high school student, Mr. Faylor, who is one of a set of quintuplets who all attend Carpe Diem Westwood. Faylor said he enjoyed working online and going at his own pace. Compared to homeschooling, it’s similar, because he and his brothers and sisters used online tools at home, too, but at school he has the opportunity to ask the teachers questions. He showed me what he was doing on his laptop: the subject was math, and the general topic was linear functions; Google Classroom listed the teacher’s recommended resources within that topic on a checklist. For Expedition Fridays, he said his favorite electives were money management and Spanish.
Carpe Diem Westwood is worth a closer look for parents who want to give their children the benefits of personalized learning. Students who are learning asynchronously have the opportunity to build up knowledge in their weak areas and also accelerate their progress in subjects that they are passionate about. Families of prospective students can call 210-774-9284 to request a tour, or apply online for grades 6-12.
In its third year, Carpe Diem Westwood is attempting a turnaround and a return to its personalized learning roots. Their strategies include advisory groups for social-emotional learning, properly implementing blended learning in the classrooms, offing a unique schedule on Expedition Fridays, and giving students a greater sense of agency. For busy adults who are used to managing their time and using technology to track progress, the strategies used at Carpe Diem Westwood will look familiar, and have face validity as techniques for preparing students for college and life. The new leadership is fighting inertia and working hard to prepare for assessments in the spring. I hope this experiment has a chance to show results and serve more students in San Antonio.
- “Ribbon-Cutting Ceremony at Carpe Diem Westwood in San Antonio,” Inga Cotton, San Antonio Charter Moms, September 17, 2015
- “Groundbreaking Ceremony at Carpe Diem Westwood in San Antonio,” Inga Cotton, San Antonio Charter Moms, May 4, 2015
- “Carpe Diem Groundbreaking Education,” Bekah McNeel, Rivard Report, May 2, 2015
- “With one chance left, Carpe Diem launches academic overhaul,” Lauren Caruba, San Antonio Express-News, August 25, 2017
- “Parents, Students Make Last Effort To Keep Struggling South Dallas Charter School Open,” Bill Zeeble, KERA, April 6, 2017 (about a Dallas charter school facing closure after three years in IR)