Source: AVI CHAI Foundation
As part of AVI CHAI’s investment in the field of blended and online learning, we are excited to share with you the first in a series of four cases that study and document the experiences of day schools introducing and implementing this mode of learning. Our goal is to bring to life this innovative model and share real-life examples of the learning in action. “Zafon Elementary School: A Station-Rotation Model for Supporting 21st Century Learning,” describes an Orthodox, pre-K through 2nd grade school, which opened in 2012 with blended learning as a core element of its design. As the study’s author remarks, “This case is in many ways a study of implementation, of translating from a design on paper to the delivery of a program in practice.”
Each case study is driven by a set of questions that the authors believe will help to bridge theory to practice, namely:
- What prompts educators to move to blended and online learning?
- What happens as day schools and teachers engage in these new strategies?
- What capacities are needed and available to implement the methodology?
- What outcomes do educators see from their efforts?
- What challenges remain to be addressed?
The four schools selected for the case studies series reflect a range of schools (elementary and high schools, new and established), of religious affiliation, and of implementation approach (school-wide to single classroom). Three are new schools; one is established. One of the new schools will not continue as a case because it was unable to enroll enough students or secure enough funding to continue as a school.
In addition to the three forthcoming cases, there will also be subsequent follow-up studies (including for Zafon) that will trace its further growth over its third year. Please note that, conforming to norms of academic research for confidentiality, we will use pseudonyms for all individual schools and staff.
The case of Zafon is distinctive in four features that frame our analysis. First, it is a new school, facing the predictable challenges of starting up — such as hiring a head, developing a budget, locating and renovating space, creating a process for recruitment and induction of staff, developing curriculum (in both Judaic and general studies), and attracting and enrolling students. Like many schools starting up, both public and private, Zafon adopted a phase-up strategy: opening with pre-K through first grade and adding a grade, and new faculty, each year as students progress. In the 2013–2014 academic year, the time of this study, the school housed pre-kindergarten through second grade, with 17 full-time teachers and three administrators serving 162 students. Conforming to norms of academic research for confidentiality, we have used pseudonyms for all individual schools and staff. This is primarily a matter of research ethics — the intent to protect the privacy of participants. It is also a reflection of the nature of a case, which is based on purposeful study and constructed from the researchers’ perspective — the acknowledgement that a case study can only tell part of the story of a real school.
Second, as a new school, Zafon began with blended learning as a core element of its design. Rather than adding online learning into existing routines, norms, and structures, or having to convince skeptical or resistant teachers or parents, faculty and families began with the expectation that blended learning would be incorporated into all subjects, and all grades, for all students.
Third, Zafon represents a case of a model-driven school. The school began with an externally developed design, a model created before people were in place or a place was even determined. This case is in many ways a study of implementation, of translating from a design on paper to the delivery of a program in practice. As such, the school faces what educational researchers call the “fidelity challenge”: balancing the imperative to remain true to design principles against the inevitable need to make accommodations to local context and capacity, allowing sufficient “mutual adaptation” for the program to be realized (McDonald et al., 2009; McLaughlin, 1990).
Fourth, and finally, Zafon is model-driven in another sense as well. It was intended from its original conception to serve as a model of what day schools could be in the future, as an example of both educational and economic potential. A steady stream of visitors gives evidence of considerable interest in the idea. Blended learning was presented as a key strategy for affordable day school education, and Zafon’s tuition levels — at least in 2013–14, with a small staff, few administrators, and rented space — run from about $8,000 to $9,000 depending on grade level, well below the rate of other day schools in the region.
This case study provides an overview of Zafon as a new, blended learning and model-driven school. It presents its progress as educators have implemented the model through the beginning stages of its first two years. While it is informed by the larger ongoing research study, it draws primarily on two years of fieldwork at the school, with two to three visits each year, interviews with administrators and teachers, and classroom observations across grade levels and subjects. The case study begins with the history and background of the school and then moves to its philosophy, and the organization and operations developed to translate that philosophy into practice. The next section takes a closer look at what blended learning looks like in classrooms, and the final section offers an overview of the school’s financial model and the projected estimates, expectations, and plans for the future. Together, these sections tell a story of how Zafon has navigated the process of taking an externally designed rotation model, adapting it to fit its own context, and establishing a new kind of blended learning day school.
Read the Zafon case study here.