Technology, Leadership, Love

October 12, 2012


By: Nicole Geary

It’s Wednesday morning in World Studies and freshmen are touring European cities through the eyes of Google Earth.
Taking cues from their teacher, they each access the web through their own laptops and take notes on an iPad at the same time. No paper.
Or pencils.
Unless, for instance, it’s time to practice taking the ACT.
They attend VOISE Academy, a 1-to-1 technology school on Chicago’s westside where, although fights often break out in the surrounding streets, learning abounds in the hybrid spaces between classroom and computers.
The close-knit school stands apart on the third-floor of a three-school campus, built on big ideas and the leadership of a Spartan.
Principal Todd Yarch, a graduate of the Michigan State University teacher preparation program, has been striving to create a successful blended learning model for urban students since VOISE – Virtual Opportunities Inside a School Environment – opened in 2008.
Earlier this year, Yarch briefed Congress on the future of digital classrooms and watched the first class of 99 students graduate from one of the first fully blended high schools in the country. At more than 80 percent, the four-year graduation rate at VOISE is significantly higher than the average for Chicago Public Schools.
“They are not just layering technology on an old instructional model,” said Susan Patrick, president of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) and a keynote speaker at the school’s first commencement ceremony.
“Todd is leading a revolution, a revolution to dramatically change outcomes for student learning with technology and strong interdisciplinary instruction.”


VOISE opened as part of Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 initiative, which was intended to create 100 high-performing public and charter schools for areas of high need. VOISE was designed by a team including Northwestern University faculty and CPS leaders, including former distance learning manager Sandi Atols. Starting with freshmen, a new class has been added each year.
The students, who come from all over the city, are each assigned personal laptops on which they do and organize nearly all of their work. Few families can afford Internet access at home.
Although students are not permitted to take the devices home each night, most spend extra time at school. In fact, up to a third of all VOISE students – and many teachers – come on Saturdays to continue class projects or catch up on self-paced assignments. The daily attendance rate is also high for the neighborhood, at about 84 percent.
A former history teacher, Yarch landed the job at VOISE after completing the New Leaders for New Schools training program. He says online learning has often been misconstrued, especially in urban or alternative schools, as simply a means for struggling students to make up credits or for schools to replace teachers.
Blended learning is a term used to describe any mix of web-based and live instruction, and it’s a growing concept.
“More and more people are finding that a combination of both is better than merely online or merely face-to-face,” said Punya Mishra, professor of Educational Psychology and Educational Technology (EPET) in the MSU College of Education. “If it’s fully online, you don’t have the personal connections that can be particularly important in high school. At the same time, there are a lot of things in school that can be done individually by students in an online environment.”
One VOISE teacher Rachel Ward – also a graduate of the MSU College of Education – said a typical lesson for her might start by prompting students to respond to a question in a shared Google Doc on their laptops, then leading a class discussion on the topic. Next, she would show something from YouTube or Khan Academy to further illustrate the concept before turning students loose for a more in-depth assignment.
“It takes a tremendous amount of creativity on the part of the teachers and the leader,” said Yarch. “What we do is very highly engaging and it’s technologically advanced, and that is what really attracts kids to us.”
But it doesn’t stop there. VOISE teachers use technology not only to make whole-class lessons more exciting but to actually meet the needs of the population, student by student. At least one period per day, they use various web-based software tools such as Flexbooks from the CK-12 Foundation to help students work through content independently based on pre-identified skill deficits.
Yarch and his staff decided during the school’s third year that the comprehensive online curriculum founders selected was not flexible enough, especially for students arriving with elementary-level achievement – or worse.
“The problem is, how can you access high school content if you can’t read?” said special education teacher Amy Bray, who helped rethink the curriculum and introduce a more formal response-to-intervention (RTI) plan last year.
“The whole idea is to meet the kids at their instructional level, and we have seen achievement increase dramatically.”
On average, student reading achievement has improved by almost two grade levels. The average ACT score grew by 1.2 last year, from a 14.4 to a 15.6 composite.
Some of the other places using blended learning to personalize education include Carpe Diem Schools in Arizona and School of One in New York.


Teachers credit much of the success at VOISE to the dedication of their leader. As they have ventured into new territory together – in some form or another every year – Yarch has been receptive to change and yet insistent on meeting his original goals: giving students otherwise-implausible opportunities to succeed and above all, providing a safe, trusting environment.
Junior Darrell Greaves knows this well. He was shot twice last year, just after Christmas, when he was in the wrong place and situation. Like so many unfortunate events, it happened in the world outside of school.
But every one of his teachers visited him in the hospital. When he moved with his mom to another part of Chicago, he made sure he could stay at VOISE.
“It helps me focus more,” the 16-year-old said of doing his work in the digital realm. And Mr. Yarch? “He’s straight because I know he wants us to achieve and go to college.”
Sitting in his corner “office,” Yarch often keeps his own laptop in the hallway where he can simultaneously greet and chastise students during passing times. “We’ve created a culture where the students know we care about them – but we’re not soft by any stretch of the imagination,” he said.
Yarch himself saw the differences between urban and more affluent communities while attending Everett High School in Lansing, Mich. Growing up in the area, he first came to MSU’s campus while delivering furniture with his father, Richard Yarch, who was
an upholsterer at the university for
25 years.
He spent a few semesters attending Calvin College where he was on the baseball team before eventually settling into the secondary teacher track at Michigan State. He wanted to be a teacher and coach, but he also got a glimpse of his administrative potential during the internship year at Lansing’s Eastern High School.
Mentor teacher Manuela Jenkins said she could tell he was going to be a principal, but advised him to teach for at least 10 years first. That stuck with him – except he actually spent eight years at Simeon Academy in south Chicago, where he coached baseball, became the social studies department chair and helped introduce the first Advanced Placement courses.
He was a tireless advocate of using technology to improve teaching. And he wanted to lead.
“I really loved helping kids, but I felt like when I was helping teachers do their job, I was helping more kids,” Yarch said.
Fellow Spartan Rachel Ward, who was one of the first MSU teacher candidates to complete the full-year internship in Chicago, didn’t know what to expect at VOISE when she interviewed with the new principal for a full-time job. She found many of the social and academic barriers at play in urban high schools but with a smaller staff and the added pressure to blaze the blended learning trail – a challenge she faces every day.
“A lot of schools and districts are looking at us to see, is this working?” she said. “This is a difficult task, not only with the technology, but here, with our community. It’s hard. You have to pretty much dedicate your life to it and (Todd) has.
“Every single kid sees him every single day … His presence makes a difference.”
Over the summer, VOISE was selected as one of five CPS schools named as a Spotlight on Technology School. Yarch has begun consulting for other educators experimenting with blended models and he would like to see it work in more Chicago-area schools.
But he is far from satisfied with the progress toward higher achievement levels at VOISE, and he doesn’t want to go anywhere else.
“We can’t just be the cool factor. The question has to be, is this something that’s going to be, instructionally, the right way to go for kids?” he said. “I fully believe that that’s what we’re doing.
“We had some great founders that wanted to take a chance – take a chance on me – to build a 21st Century type of school in a neighborhood that probably needs it more than any.”


Aaryn Finklea, a member of the first graduating class at VOISE, was selected as a 2012 Gates Millennium Scholar. The program covers college tuition and housing (possibly up through a Ph.D.) for 1,000 students out of about 24,000 applicants nationwide.