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Arizona school students seize learning day with computer-based lessons

A public charter school in Arizona is taking a new, computer-based approach to teaching its students. NBC's Rehema Ellis reports.

Sevanna Power sits at her workstation, completing her daily assignments. She's logged into a computer, which is where she does most of her lessons and coursework. Power is a seventh-grader at Carpe Diem Collegiate High School and Middle School in Yuma, Arizona. This is her second year attending the charter school where there are no traditional classrooms.

"I do miss [classrooms]," Power said. "Because I had a lot of fun with reading and we still do that here, but I like to hold books too, so it's just interesting to not have that now."

At Carpe Diem, students use computers to work at their own pace. The middle and high schoolers kick off the day in the learning center, then rotate between completing online assignments and going into classes -- where they receive direct instruction from teachers in what they call workshops. 

"There are lectures on the computer but it's very one dimensional. There's one way to explain things and some children don't get that ... that's why we have the workshops," said Chet Crain, dean of students at Carpe Diem. "So a student who doesn't understand, say, dividing fractions, they've listened to the lecture on their computer but they still don't get it, then they can come to the workshop and ask our math teacher to please explain this another way. And by using projects, by using manipulatives and by using whatever it takes, we will make that student successful."

Carpe Diem students share their experience in the program and the transition from traditional classrooms.

Organizers say this blended learning model allows students to pursue their individual education plans. Floor staff is always on hand in case students need help. Some say the mix of technology and teacher interaction at Carpe Diem is what's necessary to educate kids in the 21st century.

Dan Harvey, who has three children enrolled in the school, called it the best of both worlds, describing the setup as unique because of the "traditional aspects with the workshops and the classrooms, but then the individual nature of it. We've got five kids and they're all very different … this kind of enables them to kind of do their own pace and go their own speed."

Larry Cuban, education professor emeritus at Stanford University, said that while this type of model may work for some, it's not one size fits all -- and more research needs to be done because "very few studies are done independent of the schools of themselves. And so the evidence isn't there. But that doesn't mean that people are not going to try it. There are a lot of things tried in American schools that have very little evidence or research to support them." 

Cuban said he understands why blended learning is attractive to educators and families.

Carpe Diem administrators and teachers explain the importance of the blended learning model and why moving away from a traditional classroom prepares students for the future.

“Parents want their kids to be treated as individuals" and "[blended learning] programs promise that there will be more individualized teaching and learning by the students," he said.

He also pointed to cost, explaining "you don't need as many teachers. And that is attractive ... when a lot of districts are letting teachers go, when there is a smaller teacher force now."

Carpe Diem’s four academic teachers agreed that the program is not for everyone, but the test results are promising: 90 percent of Carpe Diem students are proficient in core subjects, compared to about 70 percent statewide, according to the Arizona Department of Education.

Many Carpe Diem students used to attend more traditional schools and said there are pros and cons to both.

"I like the fact of how flexible [Carpe Diem] is," said seventh-grader Timothy Harvey. "I can't take tests at home, so if I wanna do work from home I can, on the weekends or after school if I feel that I want to, or if my parents want me to do some work, or I need to if I'm behind."

For Kristina Felix, a senior, the undivided attention she receives from the same teacher every year and the ability to work at her own pace are a plus.

"It's really great, like I get to communicate more with them," Felix said. "There's less people here so I feel less pressured; I don't have to compare myself to other people ... I wanna be a nurse and with this I think it's really helping me a lot."