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The digital bell sounds, and students at Arthur Ashe Charter School in New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood file into the classroom. They sit down and immediately get to work: Put on headphones, pull up the Internet browser, click into their program, choose “math.”
The program greets each student by name. “Hi, Romalice!” unfurls on the screen. “Here’s how you are doing!” Romalice has earned 3,442 of the 3,500 points needed to get to the next level.
Though they’re all in the fifth grade, the students in the Ashe computer laboratory are on three different math computer programs and an uncountable number of subjects: fractions, graphing, order of operations. The silence rivals that of a library; the concentration is total. Each child is locked into his or her own little world, that of the computer screen that takes students through math problems as quickly as they can click and drag.
Computers have been in classrooms for years, to be sure, and the conversation in Louisiana has most recently focused on little more than preparing for computerized tests. But with software improvements and lowered costs, more and more New Orleans public schools are looking at making computers not just a testing tool but a central part of year-round education, especially in math — seduced by promises of truly personalized education that reaches every child where they are, whether that be behind or ahead, and the stunning success of Ashe, a B-graded school where more than 95 percent of the 500 students come from what are considered impoverishes families.
Some schools in Washington D.C., California and New York got there first, but education consultant Cate Swinburn said New Orleans is rapidly catching up. There is little research examining long-term results, but many schools now combine conventional teaching with computer assists – a combination called “blended learning.” Last year, the Orleans Parish School Board approved a charter where students would come to the building only half the day, supplementing the time with online classes at home.
Brandon Phenix, who directs blended learning for the ReNEW charter network, sees three primary ways to integrate computers into a school:
Students may go to a lab, as at Ashe.
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They may spend most of their day learning online, as at the Rocketship charters that plan a Louisiana expansion.
They may use computers in an ordinary classroom in “centers,” with a small group of students spending time on computers while other students do other tasks with a teacher. Then the groups rotate.
That’s at schools like ReNEW’s, at any rate, where the poverty rate in elementary grades is at least 95 percent. “We want to use the technology to catch kids up,” Phenix said. Wealthier public and private schools tend to have students using computers to explore media skills: They create videos, work on projects and blog.
Phenix said he doesn’t encounter any New Orleans school leaders who reject technology integration. “Everyone understands the potential of this and everyone’s hungry to learn more,” he said.
The leader: Arthur Ashe
The unquestioned New Orleans public school leader in blended learning, and a national model, is Arthur Ashe. So many educators from elsewhere want to watch the lab that administrators are considering setting aside one day per month for site visits.
Principal Sabrina Pence couldn’t say how much of Ashe’s progress was due to the technology program. But she couldn’t rave enough about the targeted schooling and the student engagement. The programs produce so much data about students’ strengths and weaknesses that teachers can’t use it all.
The way it works at Ashe now, three years into the project, is that two classes go into the lab at a time, accompanied by teachers. There are two labs, each with extra staff: a monitor plus City Year corps members. Special education teachers take students out halfway through for extra time together. It happens on top of a typical math class, which might be covering entirely different subjects.
The students find the lab projects more absorbing than a worksheet. “They’ve grown up with video games,” Pence said. “The programs have a lot of bells and whistles that make it fun,” including short games that pop up inside the program as a reward. The ability of the computer to customize levels means students can be challenged just enough. They have immediate reinforcement when they’re successful.
It’s a change from an ordinary class. And it makes students invested in their own learning, Pence said. They want to reach their goals.
That was evident in the Ashe lab on a recent Friday. Status charts hung on the walls, tracking kids’ progress. Children scratched notes on paper.
Keminie Jones, 10, said lab was fun. “We get to play games when we finish our own lesson,” she said. She didn’t find mistakes frustrating. “When you mess up, it lets you know,” she shrugged. “It tells you how to do it.”
When students can’t figure out something, they are taught to use the in-program help. If they’re still confused, they ask an adult. Lab coach Kimble Wright walked around the room looking for raised hands and eyeballing the screens.
In the front of the room, Justin Jordana, 11, was working on the program ST Math, where students solve problems to take a penguin character, “JiJi,” back home to the North Pole. The penguin has two “lives” per round, though Wright said that when the student makes two mistakes, “We don’t say JiJi dies. We say he’s taking a break.”
Justin’s screen showed rows of peanuts and elephants. To check the fifth grader’s understanding, Wright asked him to explain the question: “Mr. Jordana, I don’t understand the peanuts and the elephants!” the coach implored his student. “I don’t get it! I’m hungry! I want to go to the zoo.” Justin helped him out.
“I just went up (a level) because I keep passing decimals,” he boasted. “I’m on 76 percent.” If he gets tired of this subject, Justin can move around. “There’s other worlds,” he said, such as “fractions on the number line … rounding decimals.”
But then he got stuck. He wasn’t sure what the game was asking him to do. Wright was helping other students. Justin sat and frowned at the screen for a minute, then brightened.
“Now it makes sense,” he said. He had to divide the number of peanuts by the number of elephants so each elephant got “fed” its fair share. Click, click and the animated peanuts dropped into the elephants’ maws. Justin tore through the other questions in the round. JiJi was one step closer to getting back to the North Pole.
Wright and the other monitor are critical. Every week, they meet with students to review their results and goals, and they meet with teachers to conference about where the students are at and to see if they’re having the same problems in both settings.
“This is by no means a traditional form of education,” Wright said. But “these kids, they learn. They interact in a completely different way. … They love technology,” he said. “We have to structure their education around it because that gives them the best opportunity.”
The Ashe labs are constantly changing. The school is piloting a writing computer lab session. Recently it’s found major success bringing in families. “We are finding that kids who are using their programs at home are mastering literally years of content,” Pence said. The school has partnered with Cox Communications to offer home Internet connections for $10 a month.
Despite the peanuts, elephants and penguins, the technology is a means to an end, Pence said. “It’s a flexible structure to fill every gap and push kids forward,” she said. “For us, more than any of the software stuff, that’s the lesson.”
The all-in: alternative schools
In New Orleans’ three alternative high schools, online courses are already the norm. Students at Crescent Leadership Academy, The NET and ReNEW Accelerated use them to review material and pass tests they’re already failed once or more. Some mainstream high schools, such as Joseph S. Clark and Landry-Walker, use them as well.
These students are often older, less interested in a standard high school experience but motivated to get their diploma. Rather spending the whole semester or year retaking a class they almost passed, they can, via online classes, focus on the sections they failed.
Crescent Leadership Principal Chauncey Nash said online coursework was an offer he simply couldn’t refuse. His school takes in students who have been expelled from mainstream middle and high schools, for short stays or long. They come in and leave all the time, and might be far ahead or way behind.
“Being an alternative school, I get in kids who may need a course we just don’t have,” Nash said, and “our ultimate goal is not to punish them” educationally. With online classes, 30 different students “can all be having 30 different classes” – without the school needing to hire 30 different teachers it can’t afford.
In some cases, students need to take two classes that meet at the same time. Or it’s not age-appropriate; Nash doesn’t want a 20-year-old student sitting in an Algebra I class with 14-year-olds.
So far only about 30 of the school’s 230 students are using online credit recovery, but “our ultimate goal is to grow it,” he said.
Some of the students use Course Choice, the state-funded program that lets students take in-person or online classes outside their school. But mostly the school pays for a system called Plato, from the company Edmentum. Nash assigns teachers, during their planning period, to oversee the online course block. If students need help on a different subject, they’re allowed to check with another teacher. Students who don’t have computers at home are loaned portable computers so they may keep working after hours.
Nash tries to keep the online courses to review only, for he didn’t consider it a good idea for most students to encounter complex subjects the first time without a teacher. And he said some subjects aren’t suited for it.
As for the results, a lot “depends on how motivated the learner is, just like sitting in the classroom,” Nash said. One young woman knocked out Algebra I in four weeks.
The experimenter: Evan Stoudt, Sci Academy
Evan Stoudt is in his 20s, but the fifth-year math teacher was old-school in the classroom. Until recently.
He was practically evangelizing at an April seminar coordinated by Phenix, a blended learning fellowship for New Orleans teachers who want to bring tech into their classrooms on their own, without a comprehensive, full-school effort like the one at Ashe.
Stoudt suggested websites, programs and online tools to his fellow fellows. If most of the class is learning from an online video or working on computer programs, “you can work with a small group. That’s where you can coax out the misunderstanding and respond to it,” he told them.
His school, Sci Academy, is ramping up in ways often more seen in wealthy schools, such as its Seminar in Innovation and Change, where seniors use computer tools as part of a larger research project. Every Sci senior has a school-supplied portable computer, and more are on their way. Sci will start the 2014-15 academic year with probably twice as many computers as it started in 2013, Stoudt said.
Stoudt was inspired by the senior seminar, as well as a multimedia personal-goals project by the ninth graders in English class, where they interviewed relatives and created videos.
At Sci, Stoudt’s own classroom didn’t even have a computer. But he decided there were no excuses. He had a projector for the class, and many of the students had computers at home. Though he liked the packaged videos created by Khan Academy, the online sensation created by Metairie native Sal Khan, he decided to make his own.
On March 5, Stoudt posted a YouTube video of him explaining and demonstrating how to solve quadratic equations by factoring. Two months later, he’s recorded more than 20 how-to videos, some more than 30 minutes long. He bought a domain name, mrstoudt.com, to make the videos easier for students for find.
To be sure, some have fewer than 10 views. But Stoudt saw immediate success: The night before a May exam, a student emailed him asking which video to review.
“I see the videos as a great opportunity for me to be able to extend my classroom outside of the classroom,” Stoudt said. A student who missed a class or just wants to review can watch them. And Stoudt can play the video in class while pulling aside a small group to go over a topic they missed.
“We’re not doing blended learning because it’s exciting or it’s new, even though it is exciting and it is new,” he said. “People are saying that this is working to help kids in really cool ways.” It’s about “getting kids passionate and equipped with tools.”
The planner: Success Prep
Over in Treme-Lafitte, Success Prep is making progress. The school has 460 students in kindergarten through seventh grade, and it climbed above a failing grade just last year. It’s a stand-alone school, not part of a charter group with lots of resources. Principal Niloy Gangopadhyay takes pride in the low student-teacher ratio, 21.5 to 1. He wants his students to get into New Orleans’ top high schools.
But Ashe’s, well, success, was hard to ignore. “I’ve got to think why their scores are so high, especially in math,” is due to the blended-learning program, Gangopadhyay said. He was starting to think Success was behind the curve. Besides, his school had to upgrade its computers anyway, which dated back to just after Hurricane Katrina, for online tests in 2015.
Success has a small computer lab, but only the seventh graders use it, and scheduling is tough. There are a few desktop computers and tablets in the kindergarten through second grades.
So last summer, the staff started talking. Maybe Success they should try blended learning. They invested $80,000 in an initial tech upgrade and secured a grant to visit schools around the country.
Gangopadhyay liked the “top-notch facilities” at Summit High School in Fontana, Calif., though its demographics aren’t similar. He saw Rocketship schools, where children spend 90 minutes a day in a technology course, and concluded, “That was really powerful.” Eastside College Prep in East Palo Alto, Calif., uses Khan Academy instructional videos to help children learn. Gangopadhyay liked that some schools had been able to reach more students with fewer staff.
But he was most impressed just four miles from his own school, at Ashe: the personalization, the increased teacher time for struggling students, the things software can do that teachers can’t. The computer is faster at creating questions that meet the student’s exact needs and can quickly “shoot out multiple questions for the same concept,” Gangopadhyay said, “getting that skill reinforced over and over again” – and all without hours of grading.
Success Prep has all but ruled out doing an in-class “centers” model. “In pretty much every school I visited, the centers rotations, it’s not clear to me that the four to six kids on computers are actually getting anything done,” said Kat Coneybear, Success’ director of data and innovation. “Some of them are clicking around on random things.”
Administrators at Success also gave up on the idea of shrinking the faculty. And they might still not do blended learning at all, Gangopadhyay said. Several top New York-New Jersey charter networks don’t use it, “They’re going old-school and posting really ridiculous results,” he said.
But that didn’t sound terribly likely. “We have a lot of room to play around and figure it out,” Gangopadhyay said. “I think once we can implement it, in the next few years, it’s going to be a game-changer for us.”
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