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WASHINGTON, D.C. — When a bell rang in a fourth grade classroom at Ketcham Elementary School, students rotated on the learning circuit.

There were several learning stations, giving children a chance to work in small groups with educators while others worked at their own pace on educational games on computers. The D.C. Public School District has been experimenting with blended learning programs like this in several schools.

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Digital Promise
Fourth grade teacher Milton Bryant works with students in a small group during a blended learning session at Ketcham Elementary School. Elsewhere in the classroom students worked with other educators and on computers, and they rotated at intervals to each station. (Photo: Nichole Dobo)

Teacher Milton Bryant is among those who have been experimenting with new ways to deliver personalized instruction. He is among the education innovation fellows in the district – a partnership with Microsoft. Among his experiments: videotaping his lessons, which allows students to log in and watch what they want to review on their own time.

“It’s like the Khan Academy starring Mr. Bryant,” Ketcham principal Maisha Riddlesprigger told a group of educators and technology experts who toured the school Monday.

The visit, which included D.C. Chancellor Kaya Henderson, was one of several tours arranged by Digital Promise, a nonprofit network that includes 57 public schools in 27 states that have been designated as leaders in making use of technology. The effort helps schools, policy experts and technology firms collaborate to solve problems and share success stories.

At Ketcham teachers have been working in a blended classroom model for two years. The education, which uses a model where students rotate between technology and live teaching stations, does not replace teachers with computers. Instead, it allows educators to break students out into small groups and work with them at their level. They can help those who are behind grade level catch up. And for those who are working at a higher level, they can challenge them to do more.

“The technology supports great teachers,” Bryant said.

There are nearly 310 children at Ketcham, and nearly all of them qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches. About 80 of the students here are classified as homeless. Some live in shelters. Others are staying with family while they await housing vouchers.

Unlike some other school districts, every student is not given a computer in Washington, D.C. The children at Ketcham, a preschool to grade five school, work on shared desktop computers to play learning games. The results of these games allow children to move fast or slow. The incentive for scoring high is they can earn points to play more leisurely games.

Educators can access data that reveals which skills children need more help understanding. It is also used to print out lessons that match needs for each student that are used by community partner tutors who work in the school. Not everything has gone perfectly with the district’s blended learning experiments.

A middle school program has proven to be difficult, with many of the staff leaving each year, so that the school has to re-train teachers again and again, a district leader said. But there is a commitment to experimenting and figuring out what works – and what does not – by quickly assessing and adapting.

Or, as summarized by one tech expert who Tweeted a summary of a talk from Henderson, that means ensuring there is a solid plan for how to best use technology in the classroom.

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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