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Why Holy Angels?

Monday, February 06, 2017 by Fr. Nate Wills, CSC

Why Holy Angels? Fr. Nate Wills

Holy Angels Catholic School is the first whole-school blended learning pilot in a Notre Dame ACE Academy. It is an amazing school with wonderful students, loving families, a rich tradition of Catholic education, and committed teachers. But one question we receive over and over again is “Why Holy Angels?” Why now? Why this Notre Dame ACE Academy? And why blended learning?

 Here’s the short answer: 

  1. “Tetris Gaps”

  2. Systems of Support

  3. Infrastructure

Here’s the not-so-short answer: in 2016, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and Notre Dame entered into a partnership to support five center-city elementary schools in the Archdiocese. These five schools became Notre Dame ACE Academies, and in doing so they set out to become academically excellent, financially sustainable, and distinctively Catholic schools that prepare students for college and heaven. Each of these schools faced significant challenges, but one school in particular, Holy Angels, faced some obstacles that made several administrators ponder its outright closure.

Due to its low enrollment, the school had multi-grade classrooms. Teaching kids at different grade levels in one classroom proved to be exceptionally difficult for some teachers at Holy Angels as they tried to respond to the unique needs of each child and prepare lessons across several ability levels.

"We knew that the students of Holy Angels deserved a great Catholic education that responded to their unique needs."

Consequently, the school experienced enormous teacher turnover over several years, which significantly hindered students’ learning. Many of the students were working below grade-level and needed to remediate some missing pieces in their education. I call these missing educational pieces “Tetris Gaps” because as the pieces of education start to fall faster and faster, it’s tremendously difficult to get back to fill-in these spaces, just like a game of Tetris.

Yet neither the Archdiocese nor ACE wanted Holy Angels to close. The school itself has a rich tradition of serving the African American community in Indianapolis and of its nearly 100 students (PK-6), 99 percent are African-American and 99 percent qualify for free-or-reduced-priced lunch. We knew that the students of Holy Angels deserved a great Catholic education that responded to their unique needs.

In a conversation with Indianapolis Catholic School Superintendent Gina Fleming and NDAA director Dr. Christian Dallavis, I suggested that these unique challenges might make Holy Angels the ideal location for a school-wide blended learning implementation. I studied several blended learning Catholic schools for my doctoral dissertation and knew how powerful this innovative approach could be for schools facing similar challenges.

Both Christian and Gina were incredibly supportive of this idea and agreed that this could be a unique solution to the “Tetris Gaps” problem. Over the next several months, Gina and her staff provided incredible support, and the systems of support only continued to grow as the new school principal, Matt Goddard, quickly bought in to the idea of using technology for personalization, as did the outstanding teachers. This was the support that we needed to get the blended learning pilot off the ground.

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The initial Holy Angels parent info night where we introduced the idea of blended learning. That’s superintendent Gina Fleming up front, principal Matt Goddard top left, and a number of  Holy Angels school parents in their gym.

Finally, while many schools want to “go blended,” not all have the infrastructure to support this move. Thankfully, Holy Angels already had the necessary infrastructure for this program, including a full set of Chromebooks for each classroom and sufficient broadband connectivity. While many schools are buying the shiniest new tech tools for the sake of having them, the Archdiocese wisely prioritized investing in a robust, school-wide wifi system and carts of durable, affordable, and serviceable Chromebooks for each classroom. It’s not always popular to invest money in connectivity, but it’s essential if you want blended learning to work well.

These three essential pieces – (1) a desire to remediate Tetris Gaps in students’ education, (2) systems of support to promote buy-in, and (3) a future-ready infrastructure that could support blended learning–made Holy Angels the ideal site to pilot blended learning.

Our next challenge was teaching and empowering the faculty to maximize the power of a blended learning approach for the students entrusted to their care. Stay tuned for our mid-year report (coming soon!) and more details about the blended-learning model at Holy Angels over the next few months.