Two schools in Seattle were among the first Catholic schools in the nation to embrace blended learning, with the goal of attracting more students and serving them better.

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In an effort to attract more students, St. Therese, a Catholic school in Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood, decided several years ago to bet its future on blended learning, a teaching approach in which computers share the instructional load with teachers.

School leaders hoped a technology focus would interest parents who were disillusioned with traditional schools.

Five years later, enrollment is up, and so is student achievement. And a second school — St. Paul, in Seattle’s Rainier Beach neighborhood — has embraced blending learning, too.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab 

The two schools are part of a nationwide trend among Catholic schools, especially those that are racially and economically diverse.

“Blended learning speeds up the gains for those who are behind and challenges the growth of those who are ahead,” said Matthew DeBoer, principal of St. Therese Catholic Academy. “It’s most beneficial when there’s a wide spectrum of very diverse learners in the classroom.”

While blended learning also is used in hundreds of public schools, the approach is a particularly good fit for Catholic schools, said Father Nate Wills, a professor at the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) in South Bend, Indiana.

“We really believe that every child is created in the image and likeness of God,” he said. “An educational approach that treats each child uniquely really honors that reality.”

Organizations like ACE have a specific meaning for blending learning, a label that has been used to describe virtually any kind of classroom learning in which technology is used. To ACE and others that share its mission, blending learning is a holistic, integrated approach in which everything a student does online is closely coordinated with the efforts of the classroom teacher.

More than 50 Catholic schools have adopted this intensive approach — from Seattle to Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, San Francisco and Milwaukee.

Seattle’s St. Therese and St. Paul were among the first. The two schools rolled out their programs with energetic public-relations efforts and high hopes, and both say they’ve already seen enrollment gains and solid academic returns.

St. Therese reports that, since 2014, the proportion of students performing at or above grade level on state tests has risen from 68 percent to 84 percent in reading, and from 49 percent to 64 percent in math. Meanwhile, enrollment has increased from 112 pupils to 145.

St. Paul has seen similar gains. In the fall of 2013, the year before the school adopted the new curriculum, just 37 percent of its students were performing at or above grade level in math. By the start of this school year, that number had risen to 69 percent. Students at or above grade level in reading also rose, from 62 to 77 percent.

“Blended learning takes the ceiling off the learning experience,” DeBoer said. “It allows us to individually tailor the learning experience for each kid, no matter where they are academically.”

On a recent day at St. Therese, six students in Mary Brannan’s kindergarten class huddled over their laptops, working on their reading and math skills with a program called i-Ready. Because they are still learning to read, they listened to audio through headphones while associating spoken and written words with images on the screens of their laptops.

A few seats away, a girl named Tayler worked on math. The program flashed quantitative queries across the screen: “How many dots are in the frame?” “How many triangles are in the frame?”

Tayler worked through the questions with ease, answering each one correctly.

Students who haven’t mastered a given skill set can’t move on to the next one. The software will require them to repeat each task until they succeed, posing easier questions, if necessary, to help them grasp the material.

Blended-learning software helps teachers, too — giving them a steady and immediate flow of data about each student.

“Blended learning simplifies my job as a teacher,” said Leo Lazo, a third-grade teacher who has taught at St. Therese for 11 years. “I can address specific learning targets for small groups of students, and I can tweak things so that I can have individual students skip a lesson or repeat a lesson.”

He also doesn’t have to wait to correct a stack of work sheets to see how each student is doing. “I get instant feedback, and the student gets instant feedback,” Lazo said.

Attracting new students is an urgent priority for the nation’s Catholic schools, which have suffered a steady enrollment decline in recent decades due to changing urban demographics and a declining church population, among other factors.

Since 1967, the number of Catholic schools in the United States has fallen from 12,814 to 6,525, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. The 2008 economic crisis compounded the situation, as fewer families could afford tuition, said Patrick Haggarty, the superintendent of Seattle’s Catholic schools. Since then, more than 1,000 Catholic schools have closed their doors. While none of them were in Seattle, enrollment has been slowly but steadily dropping in the archdiocese’s 76 schools.

Haggarty and other Catholic educators are hoping that blended learning will help stop the slide.

St. Therese and St. Paul use a “rotational model” in which the classroom teacher makes sure students’ offline learning reinforces what they do on the computer. Nobody spends the entire day in front of a screen.

On a recent day at St. Paul, for example, one group in Minh Gavino’s fourth-grade math class worked directly with the teacher, a second group worked independently on laptops, and a third worked together from a textbook. When they were finished, they moved next door for reading, and a class of third-graders took their place in Gavino’s class.

At the outset of each school year, students take a test that provides a baseline assessment of their skills in given subjects. They then set individual goals for the year and are rewarded for their progress toward meeting them.

Each time they complete a lesson, they accumulate points that can be cashed in for some computer playtime. (The games are educational, of course.)

“Oh, yeah!” exclaimed JiNayia Carter, a student in Gavino’s class. “I just earned 30 seconds of game time! The more you learn, the more you get!”

Betsy Kromer, the St. Paul principal, looked on. “The software gives the kids a lot of positive reinforcement as they go along,” she said.

Many St. Paul students come from homes where parents work two jobs and don’t have time to read to their kids or help them with homework.

“We had a lot of struggling kids, and we wanted to meet them where they were at,” Kromer said. “How do you reach all those different ranges within one classroom?”

Blended learning, she said, offered a solution.

The initial shift to blended learning wasn’t easy. It required lots of preparation — and lots of money.

Depending on the size of the school and scale of the program, blended learning startup costs can reach a half-million dollars for the laptops, software, infrastructure and training. Both St. Therese and St. Paul received financial support from the Fulcrum Foundation, a nonprofit organization that raises education funds for the Seattle Archdiocese.

St. Therese also received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (Disclosure: The Gates Foundation provides funding for The Seattle Times’ Education Lab project.)

On its own, blended learning isn’t enough to draw families or boost learning. At St. Therese, for example, principal DeBoer says many families are also attracted by the school’s diversity. And he says blended learning works only if a school has already established a strong culture of discipline and respect.

When he took charge three years ago, DeBoer was the school’s third principal in three years. Noisy kids ran through the corridors between classes. One of them even bumped into him while dribbling a basketball down the hallway.

Now he polices the halls with a firm but friendly hand, greeting the students by name and inquiring about their academic progress.

“If you don’t have a strong school culture and a strong work ethic,” he said, “you’re not going to be able to just put a child in front of a computer and expect to change their performance.”

This story, originally published April 11, has been corrected.  The photo that shows several students working with laptops was taken in Victoria Finney’s class, not Minh Gavino’s.  And Serenity Nguyen is a St. Paul second-grader featured in another photo, who is in Finney’s class.  The original caption misidentified her as KateLynh Le, a second-grader in Gavino’s class.