Trading Textbooks for Educational Technology

The e3 Civic High School in San Diego, CA is widely regarded as one of the most innovative schools in the country. e3 Civic High is a free public charter high school, serving grades 9-12.

Located in the landmark 400,000 square-foot San Diego Public Library, e3 opened in the fall of 2013 with an initial class of 265 ninth and tenth graders. Today, approximately 420 students from more than 35 zip codes are enrolled at e3, but they are called scholars, rather than students, and teachers are called learning facilitators.

A Diverse Student Population

e3 is a Title 1 school with 70.6% free/reduced lunch. The school has a diverse student scholar population that includes 72.7% Hispanics, 9.8% Caucasians, 8.9% African Americans, 4% Multiracial, .5% Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders, and 1.4% unreported.

Most of e3’s scholars read two to five years below grade level. What’s more, most live within a five-mile radius of the school, although some do come from as far as twenty miles away. 27.9% of the scholars are special education students, 19.6% are English learners, and 80% of their graduates are first-generation college students.

A Different Kind of School

E3 is different. For one thing, classes don’t use textbooks. In fact, they never have. According to Dr. Cheryl Ward, e3’s CEO, Principal, and Chief Engagement & Innovation Officer, “When we opened the school, we began to develop our own curriculum. Then, about six months later, our computers came. So, we really opened as a one-to-one school. Because we have education technology, we don't need textbooks.”

Ward doesn’t see e3 as being ahead of the curve but rather just doing their best to keep pace with current best practices. “The world is changing rapidly. We need to give our scholars access to the world, and textbooks can’t do that,” she said. “Today, the best way to do that is digital.” Dr. Ward mentioned they do occasionally have a student who needs a printed textbook, but their curriculum is 99.9% digital.

“We need to give our scholars access to the world. Today, the best way to do that is digital.”

Making Learning Personal

All e3 scholars have clear college, workforce, and life targets including academic, civic engagement, and internships to prepare them for life after high school. All scholars are offered academic and wellness supports, and to foster a positive learning environment, class sizes are small. e3 supports all scholars academically and socially. The school not only focuses on school culture, but it prepares them for California’s standardized tests (STAR, CST, and CAHSEE), as well as the PSAT and SAT.

“We expect all of our graduates to apply for either two-year or four-year colleges and universities,” said Dr. Ward.

Ward credits much of e3’s success to the school’s personalized approach to learning. “We are a competency-based school with a personalized learning approach and a growth mindset. We have about 38 learning facilitators for 420 students, and then we also have tutors and learning associates,” she said. “Our personalized learning approach means scholars get the attention and support they need. If they need more time to complete their work, they get it. If they can finish early, they can do that. They can graduate early. We encourage students to choose different pathways. It’s a very flexible, individualized approach.”

Better Education by Design

Another key to e3’s success is the use of design thinking, which is essentially a collaborative approach to learning, thinking, and problem-solving. Design thinking is e3’s signature program. “It is a key focus in ninth, tenth, and eleventh grades,” said Dr. Ward. “From there, we offer an internship for all seniors, which can either be two semesters or a full year.” e3’s design thinking work has caught the attention of several local government and universities, including the University of San Diego and the University of California San Diego, as well as the city of San Diego.

e3’s students consult with all three.

e3 has also shared its design thinking expertise with educators and fellow scholars internationally. “We do visit other parts of the world, particularly China,” said Dr. Ward. “We send scholars there every summer. We had four scholars go this last summer as design thinking ambassadors to Chongqing, where they actually lead kids from China on design thinking projects. So we're moving in that direction, probably more exchange programs. We also send kids to Spain and Mexico.”

It All Started with the Right Educational Technology

One of the first digital solutions e3 adopted was Achieve3000 Literacy, a platform designed to help teachers differentiate literacy instruction in all classrooms. Interesting to note, the use of the platform predates Dr. Ward, who is quick to point out that using Achieve3000 Literacy has been a learning experience for e3.

“It’s been an evolution for us,” she said. “We didn’t implement it with fidelity in the first few years, so we got a lot of pushback from our learning facilitators, as well as the scholars, who were like, ‘Why do we have to use Achieve3000?’”

Over time, as e3’s learning facilitators began to explore Achieve3000’s differentiated literacy solution more deeply, they started to appreciate its connection to accelerated literacy growth, test preparation, and college and career readiness.

“We had a lot of additional programs that came after, but we never gave up on Achieve3000, because we found it to be extremely valuable in terms of helping students understand different types of career paths and what Lexile levels they needed to get there,” Dr. Ward said.

Measuring Growth with LevelSet

From a strategic standpoint, e3’s use of Achieve3000 starts with a simple but profound question, according to Dr. Ward, “What is it that we want our scholars to know and be able to do when they leave e3?” For Dr. Ward and the e3 team, Achieve3000’s LevelSet assessment tool plays a key role in answering that question.

“We use LevelSet three times a year,” said Dr. Ward. “We want to know that our scholars are continuing to grow as readers. We also want them to be able to set goals for themselves around their Lexile levels, knowing what they want to do and how much they need to increase their reading level to get there.”

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Dr. Ward says LevelSet is part of e3’s “assessment bank,” which is a series of data points that helps the school gauge their students’ readiness and determine what additional support they may need.

Dr. Lawrence Xu, Dean of Instruction, Assessment, and Innovation adds that LevelSet and the data it provides can also be an important tool for e3’s learning facilitators. “By using the Lexile level data, our learning facilitators are able to provide personalized support,” said Dr. Xu. “If I know certain students need additional support understanding a specific math word problem, then I can give them personalized support. So that's very important. Without that data, the personalized support is not going to be as effective.”

“We use LevelSet, because we want to know that our scholars are continuing to grow as readers.”

The Impact of Tracking and Leveraging Data

For Dr. Xu, Achieve3000’s most important benefit is its personalized support of literacy skill-building. “We all believe literacy is one of the most fundamental skills that all students need to do well in all subjects,” said Dr. Xu. “To facilitate reading growth, Achieve3000 has a large bank of articles to choose from, covering all kinds of subjects. Second, we can use the system to keep track of students’ individual Lexile levels to chart their growth with quantitative data. Our learning facilitators can then use data to drive and design their instruction.”

Educational Technology

Dr. Ward also added that Achieve3000 Literacy has impacted e3’s scholars and learning facilitators in many ways. “Our learning facilitators use Achieve3000 in the content areas, so if they are teaching something about molecular biology, they will look for articles in that area to jumpstart a content discussion. That encourages every child to access the included material at their reading level. In terms of instruction, Achieve3000 is a great tool to give everybody access to the same material at their reading level.” This concept is helping students who fall behind their peers’ reading skills to not fall behind in other subject areas, as well. It also helps students improve their literacy skills in all classes, not simply reading and literature courses.

A Powerful Way to Support Struggling Readers

Michelle Harkrider, Dean of Instruction, Grant Writing and External Training and Humanities Department lead, works closely with e3’s learning facilitators. She has found that Achieve3000 is especially valuable with struggling readers. “Part of the challenge with many of our scholars is that they struggle with reading, so they're not exposed to a lot of content. That’s one of the main reasons I love Achieve3000. It's a quick way to educate a child on something that maybe their more advanced peers would know. It gives our learners a window into the world and also gives them a chance to develop real, deep annotation skills in a way that wouldn’t be possible at their reading level.”

Dr. Xu also finds Achieve3000 Literacy to be a valuable test prep tool. “We use Achieve3000 to prepare our scholars for the SAT and CST tests. We find the rigor of the articles mirrors the state tests. The thought questions also mirror the type of questions our scholars see on the state tests. And, because Achieve3000 gives scholars articles at their Lexile level, it provides personalized prep for standardized testing.”

Bringing Differentiated Instruction Home

Another important benefit of Achieve3000 Literacy is its ability to bridge the gap between school and home, as Harkrider pointed out. “A lot of our parents want to support their scholars, and they’re not sure how to do that. We encourage them to have their scholars read 30 minutes a day, or a couple of Achieve3000 articles, so they can grow more quickly. Then, when they come to our student-led conferences which happen twice a year, we have the scholars share their Lexile growth data with their parents.”

“One of the main reasons I love Achieve3000 is that it’s a quick way to educate struggling readers on something their peers might already know. So, it really gives our scholars a window onto the world.”

How Does e3 Measure Success?

How does e3 gauge success? According to Dr. Ward, success goes beyond test scores. “Our job is to prepare our scholars for 2030 and beyond, which means we're constantly thinking about what are the jobs that that will be needed in a decade, and what type of instruction needs to happen in order for us to get students there.”

To achieve their challenging goal, e3 has created graduate profiles to follow. One such profile is literacy communicator. These profiles raise key questions, said Dr. Ward. “Can our scholars present to large and small audiences? Can they use presentation tools? Can they use social media to do their research and to communicate in a positive way? Do they understand the digital world? Are they literacy communicators in their writing, through digital literacy, and in face-to-face situations? And finally, can they use these tools and channels safely?”

Building College and Career Readiness

One of the most important measures of success for e3 is the graduation rate. According to the Department of Education, as of 2016-2017, only five states had graduation rates of 90% or above: Iowa and New Jersey (tied at 91%), and Texas, Kentucky, and Tennessee, each at 90%. e3 has a 100% graduation rate, although as Dr. Ward points out, “That doesn't mean 100% walk across the stage. On that day, every year, we always have one that's not there yet. So, we have to go back and work with them and make sure they graduate. Usually, within a couple of months, we get them across.”

Another key measure of success for e3 is career competitiveness. Do students graduate from e3 with the knowledge and skills they need to be competitive in their chosen field? To measure that, the school looks at SAT scores and college acceptance rates. Dr. Ward added, “Last year we had 76 scholars accepted to four-year programs. Of our graduates, 96% attend either a two- or four-year program, and we have an 81% persistency rate as of our last check once they get to college.”

Going Digital Takes Time

When asked how e3 was able to successfully implement its digital personalized learning approach, Dr. Ward addressed the process itself. “Let me just say, what gets checked, gets done. So, we had to do a lot of checking upfront. We had to constantly discuss the data, what that data meant to our students, and what we were trying to do,” she said. “There was a lively discussion with the staff to get their buy-in in terms of the importance of Achieve3000 Literacy and the end goal. Once we got to that place, they started to see how useful it was and all the different ways they could use it.”

Ward is quick to point out that moving to a digital personalized learning approach takes time. “You've got to get to that fidelity place. Monitoring is very important. If we didn't start with monitoring and a lot of constant feedback, we would not be where we are now. So, it's not going to happen overnight. It’s a process, and the leadership team has to be truly engaged in that process.”

What Does the Future Hold?

When Dr. Ward, Dr. Xu, and Michelle Harkrider discuss the future of e3 Civic High School, they talk about the importance of looking forward. Harkrider closed out her thoughts by talking about the future of e3’s learners. “This is the 21st century, and we know that textbooks are outdated the minute they're printed. We want to expose our scholars to live material as much as possible so that we're giving them the most updated, most well-researched content possible,” said Harkrider. “We want to prepare them to be digital natives when they exit our school because we know that is the future for them.”

Dr. Ward agreed, saying, “We love Achieve3000. We would never go back to textbooks. We would never go back to the caveman diet; we just wouldn’t.” And Dr. Xu added, “We believe our scholars need to be knowledgeable and conversant, not just in the physical world but also in the digital world. We just had a PD a couple of weeks ago where we were talking about the Internet of Things. That’s definitely coming down the pike in the next few decades, so that’s what’s in our scholars’ lives moving forward.”

“We love Achieve3000. We would never go back to textbooks. We’d never go back to the caveman diet; we just wouldn’t.”