The first time I saw blended learning in action was in 2012, when I visited one of the first two Catholic schools to implement a blended-learning model. The school was a diocesan Catholic school that partnered with a group called Seton Education Partners, which at the time consisted of the organization’s founder, Stephanie Saroki de Garcia, and the schools’ blended-learning coordinator, Jeff Kerscher (ACE 15, by the way).
Fast forward to today: Seton now has 21 team members, four thriving initiatives, and 13 schools across seven cities in its blended-learning network. Jeff has grown Seton’s network from a small entity to the nation’s largest network of urban, blended-learning Catholic schools that serve over 3,250 students, 98 percent of whom are minorities and over two-thirds of whom qualify for the federal meals program. Jeff has generously shared his expertise and resources since he began this work, and we have been picking his brain constantly over the past year as we have grown blended learning at ACE.
When we started thinking about expanding our blended-learning initiatives in Notre Dame ACE Academies last year, Jeff was one of the first people I called. His advice on the importance of leadership was so poignant that I asked him to elaborate on it for our higher-powered learning community, and he graciously agreed.
Fr. Nate and I often claim that blended learning amplifies the impact of effective teachers, allowing them to have an even greater impact on their students, but Jeff helped us realize that this same concept applies to leadership as well. “Blended learning magnifies the importance of leadership,” Jeff explained. “A leader with the right skills, motivations, and mindsets can use blended learning to cultivate an outstanding school that differentiates instruction and ultimately achieves great academic results. But putting blended learning in the hands of someone without these attributes almost guarantees disaster.”
But what attributes does Jeff look for in the leaders of his blended schools? According to Jeff, leaders of blended schools must:
Understand the importance of and need for blended learning. It is imperative that leaders understand what blended learning is (and is not) and the power of using data to inform instruction as well as commit to using blended learning to improve student outcomes, both academic and otherwise. Taking that one step further, leaders really need to be motivated by the benefits of blended learning and willing to do the hard work to bring about change. Archdiocesan leaders or school networks should never try to work with a leader who doesn’t see a need for blended learning at his or her school.
Be focused on improvement. This goes hand-in-hand with the previous quality, as it is unlikely that a leader will see the need for blended learning if he or she is not focused on improvement. But this focus on improvement must drive the school’s blended program from inception to long-term sustainability and iteration. “I look for leaders that ask and are kept up at night by the question, ‘What’s not going well here?,’ even when things seem great,” Jeff told me. That is the only way they will continue to grow.
Be proactive. When leaders do identify areas for improvement, though, the next step is to actually act. “I look for leaders that take responsibility for their classrooms and their teachers, that identify and address issues, and that are not afraid to have difficult conversations.” Even though organizations like Seton and ACE offer support to schools in this process, the school leaders are the ones on the ground every day and who have the most power to affect change. Leaders must embrace this power and understand the responsibility that accompanies it.
Support and motivate their faculty. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, great leaders have to be able to support and motivate their teachers through this transition, which can at times be overwhelming and frustrating. “I want a leader who is totally honest with his staff or her staff about how hard this might be, but then bends over backwards to walk their teaches through the transition."
If you’re looking at this list and thinking that these attributes (maybe minus the first) apply to any school leader, you’re in good company. “These are mindsets and qualities that are prerequisites for leaders and teachers that are going through any major transition or change,” Jeff concluded. Blended learning is a tool that leaders and teachers with the right attributes can harness to grow and improve, but it is just one of a variety of tools they can use. “What you want is a leader who could successfully manage the transition to a variety of models but has a passion for the benefits of blended learning.”
We are so grateful to Jeff for sharing his expertise with our community and also thrilled to be working with three outstanding leaders in our Notre Dame ACE Academies that meet these ambitious criteria! Keep following along to learn more about outstanding leaders from our schools and others in the coming months.