California Middle School Highlights Digital Learning for Student Success

By Partnership for 21st Century Learning

This 1:1 school developed a hands-on learning model by building trust with students and the community, and powerful partnerships for student success. An inspiring turnaround story, RMMS has been a featured Digital Learning Day school, awarded grants from I3, Digital Promise, and Digital Innovation in Learning.

School Profile

  • 850 students in grades 6 – 8
  • 93% students of color
  • 90% free or reduced lunch
  • 73% English language learners


Visiting Rancho Minerva, where students are clearly excited to be at school and high five the principal, Benjamin Gaines, as they walk on campus between classes, you would never know that this school was once an intervention school with the highest number of suspensions in the District. Rancho Minerva is a predominantly Latino low-income school situated in a middle-class neighborhood with no public transportation options, historically poor reputation, and falling enrollment until a dedicated staff and leadership team turned it around. Some students still walk two miles to get to school. Yet this school is a shining example of what is possible when the community comes together to elevate and support students, teachers, and families with 21st century learning as a common goal. RMMS' turnaround is validated with test scores equal to other magnet schools in the district based on socio-economic comparisons. "The progress that we are making is validated by parents choosing RMMS," says principal Benjamin Gaines. Enrollment has picked up since last year, when RMMS started to get national visibility as a promising 21st century learning school.

Today, RMMS is working to actively give all students the same opportunities and access to personalized learning, college and careers, and most importantly, to build personal relationships with staff. The learning community has been remade from the inside out through a focus on social emotional learning models and growth mindset, and making sure that students and their families feel they have a voice. "Everybody is on the same page and the kids realize it," says Samantha, school PTA leader.

District Superintendent Dr. Devin Vodicka, recognized in 2015 as superintendent of the year in the state of California, started hosting dozens of community forums around the district to get community and student feedback and buy in. "Our vision has become to be THE model for educational excellence and innovation," said Dr. Vodicka, adding that "most public schools are not this."

Community pot-lucks and home visits are just some of the efforts addressing the transportation challenges of getting parents to the school. Monthly coffee hours with the Principal and regular parent nights with student performances provide another way to connect the learning community.

Through the school's 1:1 iPad program, students and parents are now able to communicate with teachers in and out of school directly, which addresses community language barriers, and provides students access to internet from home. A full time community liaison helped establish a digital citizenship training for parents so that they could understand what technology was going to be used for, and how iPads would be used to support skills and learning. Embedding technology has allowed the school to shift more towards a student-centered approach, with an immediate response. "There's excitement about doing homework now", explains 6th grader George

The district is now working a personalized learning plan for all students. The school is collaborating with principals in feeder schools, while school leadership is trusted with risk taking and learning from failure. An early adopter culture encourages staff to step forward to try new things, like finding new ways to engage students.

Students initiate projects, like designing learning spaces, particularly in the modernized media library, and have responded very well to being respected members of the learning community. “We focus on real world problem solving using technology to connect the learning,” says Principal Benjamin Gaines, who decided to let students keep their iPads over the summer, allowing students to work on learning challenges and minimizing the summer slide. Students sense and appreciate this level of trust from the principal, and frequently come hang out in the principal’s office, to eat lunch, to do homework, to get additional support, or just because.

Digital Discovery units lie the heart of personalized learning at RMMS. Through Digital Discovery, dedicated staff are connecting students with great hands-on learning opportunities, digital skill development, and direct application of what they learn throughout their curriculum. The staff experience personalized learning as well through the school’s and district’s numerous and high quality professional development offerings, and are then able to make personalized learning possible for students in a much more meaningful way.

A district partnership with the University of California San Diego provides support on data evaluation and joint development of a web-based software to track progress on personalized learning. Every RMMS seventh grader goes on a campus visit to California State University San Marcos, building a college-going culture where many students might be the first in their families with higher education opportunities. The university participates in parent nights and other RMMS community events. In a strong commitment to higher learning opportunities, RMMS students are guaranteed a spot at CSUSM if they maintain a 3.0 GPA through high school. RMMS partnered with Alliant University to host a Latino Healthcare Expo to expose students to careers in the healthcare field and form mentorship opportunities with local industry experts. The school was selected as an AVID demonstration school given the school's commitment to college readiness for its students.

Digital Discovery classes provide students tangible career skills. Through a student-run graphics arts shop with a 3D printer – the ABC Bulls, students collaborate with staff and community agencies, and obtain a unique opportunity to experience real-world marketing, customer service, and digital art. Collaborative learning spaces, and a full scale production studio lets students experience working on film crews for various professional video projects. A bimonthly newscast, Rancho Minerva News, is a product of collaborative student work from scripting, to shooting, and editing. Students partner with eighth graders from Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Hawaii on digital storytelling projects and get to explore other regions and cultures. Through the Hol[a]loha video partnership with a school in Hawaii, students learn Japanese and Spanish. Students also get a chance to film teacher professional development conferences, and have even done a professional press conference with Univision in a tangible work-based learning experience.

Beth Duncan, the digital storytelling teacher, created the Digital Discovery elective by repurposing a period that used to be a traditional literacy block. Digital Discovery embeds a homeroom piece and restorative practices, along with concepts of mastery and lessons on digital citizenship. Learning and interacting with the tools takes time, and students use technology to display their learning in this and other classes. Students master apps for use in other content classes and then teach other teachers how to use them as well.

A growing trend in assessment at Rancho Minerva is rubric-based peer grading using Google Forms. Students also rate themselves according to a master rubric on a continuum from 'apprentice' to 'ninja' and figure out how they can improve. "It's not about the grade," says Ms. Duncan, "but did you learn it? Can you push yourself more? It's learning for learning's sake and enjoying it at every step. This class gives students mastery of self-directed learning skills that will help them in high school more than anything else we can do. Students are taking learning into their own hands, and as an educator that's incredibly fulfilling."

"We're wrestling with what is the role of the teacher in the age of Google?" says Principal Gaines. "We are trying to give kids skills that will last them a lifetime."

"We can't control everything, but we can control what happens here," adds Ms. Duncan.

Learn more about digital classroom activities at Rancho Minerva in this blog by teacher Nichole Santangelo.

Case study compiled by Tatyana Warrick, in collaboration with Principal Benjamin Gaines. Reposted with permission of the Partnership for 21st Century Learning.

Photos by Rancho Minerva Middle School.
School Characteristics