Key Takeaway

  • K-8 implementation of blended learning in a charter school serving a diverse and socioeconomically disadvantaged student population.

  • Core instructional strategies include the use of Learner Profiles and Personalized Learning Plans (created in Google Docs), student interest surveys, weekly conferences, standards-based report cards, as well as multi-age classrooms in a traditional building with open doors to allow students to move freely between rooms.

  • Interesting or unique highlights to check out: A West Belden student discussing Learner Profiles (in the video resource); and how they engage families as learning partners.

Experience Overview

NOTE: The following school profile is a snapshot of a moment in time, therefore some school structures, models, and strategies may have changed since publication.

CICS West Belden is a high performing charter school in Chicago, Illinois. Serving roughly 500 students (2016), it is part of the Chicago International Charter Schools Network and is managed by Distinctive Schools. West Belden’s mission is to motivate, challenge, and empower today’s students through personalized innovation and choice so that they may achieve success tomorrow. West Belden utilizes blended and personalized learning strategies in conjunction with strong curricular approaches to promote student growth.

To learn more about CICS West Belden's approach to learning, watch their "About Us" video.

Learning In Action

At CICS West Belden, students experience a non-traditional instructional approach that emphasizes student ownership, 21st century skills, and personalized learning. This experience happens within a traditional school building - simple adjustments to classrooms create a great deal of flexibility for students and educators.

Learner Profiles are created with each student at the start of the year using a mix of survey and academic data, identifying each student’s unique needs, interests, strengths, and challenges. Learner Profiles allow teachers and students to co-create Personalized Learning Plans (PLP). As students progress throughout the year, and their needs and interests change, the PLP is adjusted accordingly.

Within this context, students experience a great deal of voice and choice in what, when, and how they learn. While students have minimum attendance requirements for each subject, they are often able to choose when they attend various subjects (ex. Math and ELA), as well as move freely between classrooms.

In class, a student accesses a dashboard on Google Drive to tell them what they should be working on, which includes links to online programs as well as time spent in direct instruction with the teacher, peer-to-peer learning, and small group instruction. Though each student has a device, a student may choose whether the device or paper is a better fit for the completion of each learning assignment. Students generally complete an "exit ticket" after finishing an assignment to gauge understanding and mastery. They control pacing through learning objectives, initiating a formative assessments every two to three days as they master content.

This learning is embedded within a strong school culture that emphasizes six “core commitments”:

CICS West Belden adheres to six core commitments: academic excellence, social justice, ethics and integrity, optimism, literacy, and diversity.

Teaching In Action

At West Belden, each teacher is technically assigned to a grade level, classroom, and content area. However, unlike most schools, the students in their class are of mixed age, and vary throughout the school day in order to allow for personalization. Given this, teachers work in teams to extend their reach across grade levels to support students. 

The challenge of doing this is made easier through tools like student Learner Profiles and Personalized Learning Plans, online content and assessments, shared data tracking, and common planning protocols. Teachers assign students work most relevant to their interests and needs based on data, grouping them accordingly. Teachers have 90-105 minutes of team collaborative planning time per day to dive deep into student data and adjust their instructional plans accordingly. The time teachers save by using online programs is reallocated to higher yield practices like data analysis and direct time with students.

Teachers at West Belden approach teaching and learning in a highly collaborative and humble manner. No teacher at West Belden is considered a sole source of knowledge, and while letting go of control has not been easy, the more ownership they instill in their students, the more they are “blown away” by what the students are able to do. A high degree of flexibility and adaptability is a must for teachers in this ever-changing instructional environment.


Located in a typical Chicago school building, CICS West Belden seems fairly conventional in setting and structure. However, West Belden “flexes” traditional supports to accommodate significant innovations in practice with multi-age classrooms, mastery-based progression, and personalized pedagogy.

West Belden primarily uses the individual rotation model for blended learning – along with station rotation and flex models – to best cater to student needs. Teachers determine student groupings during common planning time. Depending on how students perform, groups can evolve frequently. At the center of the school’s blended approach is personalizing learning to students’ unique skills, interests, and needs. Each student has and provides input to their Learner Profile (LP) and Personalized Learning Plan (PLP).

West Belden has a 1:1 student-to-device ratio; students in grades K-5 use iPads while those in grades 6-8 employ Chromebooks. A variety of software programs, including Google Apps for Education, Edmodo, ThinkCERCA, IXL, and more are used to provide content, assess data, collaborate, and manage productivity.

West Belden adopted a competency-based approach as part of its personalized learning approach, through which students learn at their own pace and level. Objectives and learning progressions are aligned to the Common Core State Standards (the organization leverages materials from Engage NY). Teachers create mastery assessments by drawing from resources provided by its managing organization, Distinctive Schools, which vets them for rigor and alignment. Teachers set mastery levels of 80-85 percent for all learning objectives, depending on the skill and number of items. Data is used at every level of the system (student, teacher, coach, and local and network administrator) to support teaching and learning.

Targeted and Relevant

Actively Engaging

Socially Connected

Growth Oriented

Conditions for Success

Educators seeking to try out this model with their students should keep the following key needs in mind:

  • Staffing and Roles: CICS West Belden has a typical staffing model, but teachers work in very flexible and collaborative ways across multi-age classrooms. This non-traditional way of working requires teachers to have content expertise beyond just their assigned grade level (supported of course through digital content and teacher teaming) as well as have a team-oriented mindset. In addition, West Belden has a teacher residency, which allows less experienced teachers to pair with more experienced ones. This residency is done in partnership with local teacher preparation programs; West Belden serves as a student teaching site.
  • Teacher Support: Teachers are given 90 minutes per day of planning time, which is made possible by relieving them from lunch duties and pairing lunchtime with enrichment. The ongoing planning and data work is further supported by access to coaches.
  • Devices: This model requires that every student have access to a learning device at all times. 
  • Content: West Belden relies on relatively low cost and free digital resources - all of which could be adopted by other schools. The availability of these resources is a must to allow students to work at their own pace.
  • Broadband/Connectivity: Students must have adequate connectivity at all times. 
  • Finances: West Belden is able to provide blended learning instruction to every student throughout the school day on the standard budget of a Chicago charter school.  While blended learning is currently financially sustainable, West Belden did rely on implementation and planning grants to help with initial piloting and scaling, most of which was spent on professional development and teacher release time to design the model.

Replication and Scale

CICS West Belden's blended and personalized learning program has been in place for several years and is used across subjects and grades (science has remained a growth area due to the nascency of the Next Generation Science Standards). Distinctive Schools is now in the process of adapting and replicating strategies from West Belden to other campuses in its network. Key components that support this program scaling include:

  • Relatively low cost/non-proprietary programs: West Belden has primarily opted to use open systems like Google Apps. While West Belden employs the use of some paid software instructional programs, there are no proprietary intellectual properties developed that others may not be able to use.
  • Low financial cost: West Belden received a design and implementation grant to support initial design and strategy development. However, as West Belden operates in a traditional school building with traditional staffing ratios, the model is sustainable on regular public revenues.

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