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Virtual Learning for Little Ones

Educators are working to make sure the technologies elementary students are using are appropriate for their
age and highly interactive
By Robin L. Flanigan
Given that the youngest schoolchildren are part of the touch-screen generation, the question of whether they’re
too wet behind the ears for online learning has shifted to a more complex concern: making sure the technology
they’re using in school is developmentally appropriate.
In the Kyrene school district in Tempe, Ariz., which serves 18,000 students in kindergarten through 8th grade,
educators first look at what they want students to learn, then decide which, and whether, technology can best
help. “We need to be very clear about how and why we’re using it,” says Lorah Neville, the district’s executive
director for curriculum and learning services. “We don’t want to replicate core instruction in a digital format. We
want to enhance it.” Being sure to use intelligently designed technology in smart ways takes training and
practice, especially as teachers find themselves having to juggle screen time with hands-on activities and pupilteacher interaction, experts say.
For grades K-2, in particular, they say interactive digital games for math and reading must be fun; aesthetically
attractive, with lots of animation; and connected to situations children would encounter in everyday life. Even
so, those younger students need significant guidance, with step-by-step directions, while 3rd to 5th graders,
though still requiring regular supervision, can start enjoying more freedom to learn through trial and error. The
key, whether students are in a virtual school or a regular classroom that incorporates online learning, is to use
technology in highly engaging ways for each age group, and to leave enough time offline for open-ended
questions and lessons about digital citizenship.
In the Kyrene district’s elementary schools, students are granted more independence as they negotiate the
Web and become increasingly responsible consumers of information. For example, with guidance from their
teachers, kindergartners write simple sentences about community helpers, then use Pixie software to create a
slideshow about them. First graders conduct online research through a teacher-designed launch page that
links to safe, developmentally appropriate sites. Second graders create virtual tours featuring images and facts
about insects, then post them to a secure district online-sharing site. While 4th graders sometimes still use a
launch page, they also use search engines such as KidRex.org, which are designed exclusively for children
and contain age-appropriate content.
“They have access to technology at home, so they expect it at school,” says Jacinta Sorgel, one of the district’s
educational technology specialists. “They’re able to stay motivated because it’s something they do all the time.”
Too Much Tech Time?
But some educators and child-development experts worry about the fact that young children, despite all their
dexterity and digital knowledge, don’t always know when enough screen time is enough. “The concern about
self-regulation is an important one, and teachers deal with it all the time,” says Roberta L. Schomburg, a
professor of early childhood education at Carlow University in Pittsburgh. She is the vice president of the
governing board of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, based in Washington.
Schomburg adds that teachers need to take into account developmental factors when giving digital
assignments to the younger set. “We know that children in K-3 learn sensorially, by touching and doing, rather
than by filling out worksheets,” she explains. “So I say to my students, ‘If you wouldn’t give a worksheet to
teach this concept, why on earth would you give them an electronic worksheet?’ Technology should be
providing an experience that children would not get otherwise, to add a new dimension to their understanding.”
In 2012, the NAEYC issued a joint position statement on the use of technology for children from birth through
age 8 with the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College, in
Latrobe, Pa. The statement says that when used intentionally and appropriately, technology and interactive
media are effective tools to support learning and development; limitations on the use of technology and media
are important; and ongoing research and professional development are needed.
Even as the 640-student Riverchase Elementary School in Hoover, Ala., is increasing its use of technology in
the classroom, Principal Dianne Baggett advocates limitations. Each spring, she typically instructs little ones to
stop running around during kindergarten registration. But this year was different.
“They were all sitting with a phone or some other device, playing,” she says. “These children have something
in their hands all the time, and that’s a concern.” The district launched its Engaged Learning Initiative in 2012-
13, a pilot program that aims to provide all elementary students and teachers with digital learning devices by
the end of the 2013-14 school year. Every student in grades 3-5 already has a Nook e-reader, and all teachers
in grades K-5 have ipads in the classroom.
Baggett, a believer that technology can make some lessons more meaningful, is pushing to get Nooks into the
hands of 2nd graders, particularly for reading and math. Students start learning about digital citizenship in
kindergarten, and the district is planning to host its second e-learning day—in which students log in to their
assignments and complete them from home—next school year. “They come to us being able to do so many
things with technology,” Baggett says. “We have to take them from where they are and grow them.” Online
Elementary School Applying technology in the most discerning way was a guiding principle for the Marion
County school district, based in Ocala, Fla., as it created its first online elementary school. Marion eLearning
opened in October 2012 to 4th and 5th graders.
“That’s why we started with the upper grades,” says Tracy Patterson, a district curriculum and technology
program specialist who coordinates the new school and is writing curriculum to include grades K-3. “I was very
concerned about making sure they were very engaged in what they were learning, that they were really
understanding and applying what they knew, and not just playing games.” Once a week, students can meet
with the teacher for a two-hour voluntary tutoring session, which includes hands-on science and math
experiments.
For K-2 students with short attention spans and limited reading skills, Patterson is making sure their curriculum
includes animated videos and a significant amount of face-to-face time with the teacher on the computer.
Marion eLearning opened with one 4th grader, and now has seven students. The roster for 2013-14 stood at 37
students as of mid-May, with 75 percent enrolling in grades K-2, and Patterson says the number grows every
day.
It’s not surprising that young children, with their fascination with cause-and-effect toys, would be interested in
technology-driven learning, according to developmental specialist Michael Robb, the director of education and
research at the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media. Using apps creatively—such as
those that record voice and movement on screen to create digital stories and promote language, problemsolving, and imagination—are good for self-reflection, he says.
“It’s hard to turn your back on technology entirely for this age,” Robb says. “And it doesn’t make sense to do
that. That’s not the world we live in.”
Article 2
American School Board Journal
June 2013
Beyond Academics: Giving Students a Chance to Succeed
By Lawrence Hardy
Teach the students, not the curriculum. That’s a maxim that great teachers—and great schools and school
districts—live by. 

It means that, no matter how enriching the curriculum, if the material is not getting
through to the students — if it is not meeting them where they are — the whole educational enterprise has failed.
Education is always a challenge, but if most of your students are middle class and college-bound, meeting
them where they are may not be so difficult. Their parents have, for the most part, ensured that they are at
least positioned for success.
The same is not true if your students are disadvantaged, if their parents are undereducated themselves, or if
they come from minority communities that have historically faced discrimination or communities where jobs are
scarce and the risk of dropping out is high. In these cases, dynamic school districts must go the extra mile to
ensure that their students have a chance to succeed.
This month, we take a look at four districts that have worked tirelessly on behalf of disadvantaged students —
and, indeed, all students.
Kotzebue, Alaska
At times, some adults in the villages might question why a certain student was made a Youth Leader by the
Northwest Arctic Borough School District in Kotzebue, Alaska.
“He smokes too much weed,” they might say. Or: “He handles himself poorly, and is a bad role model for
younger students.”
Michelle Woods, coordinator of the Youth Leaders program at this isolated, widely dispersed district north of
the Arctic Circle, understands their concerns. But she emphasizes that these are the leaders the students have
chosen, peers they could go to if they had a problem.
She’s equally blunt with the Youth Leaders themselves. “We teach these kids that — whether they like it or not
— they are role models for the younger kids” and their peers, she says.
When the district launched the program five years ago, its prime purpose was to reduce the alarming number
of suicides — eight that year for a student population of about 2,000. That goal has been accomplished: In the
past two years, there have been none. But Youth Leaders is more than a suicide prevention program, even as
critical as that goal is. In this difficult environment, where 93 percent of students are native Inupiaq, it is
showing them they have a voice and a future.
By almost any definition, the students’ environment is harsh. Northwest Arctic serves the town of Kotzebue and
10 other villages spread over an area the size of Indiana. Average winter temperatures are 10 degrees below
zero. There are no roads between villages; provisions must be brought in by air except for three months in the
summer, when Kotzebue’s port is navigable.
Most families live by subsistence hunting and fishing, mostly done in the summer. Perhaps not surprisingly, due
to the extreme isolation and harsh conditions many families face, the area traditionally has had high levels of
suicide, substance and domestic abuse, teen pregnancy, and gun violence.
To address these problems, the school board could have invested in short-term staff, whom Woods says are
known for staying a couple of years and then moving on to less-difficult assignments. Students who bond with
these staff members and their families often feel abandoned.
Instead, the school board decided, as Woods puts it, “to invest in our students” and make them the leaders
they have the potential to become.
After the first week of school, about 115 Youth Leaders are flown to Kotzebue for an intensive weekend
workshop. Participants do teambuilding exercises and work on leadership skills. But they also talk about more
difficult issues — suicide, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and bullying. It ends with “a healing circle,” and a
celebration of life.
The Youth Leaders are asked to reach out to every student in their respective schools. They visit younger
students in their classrooms and talk about the issues they face. A Youth Leader also sits on the regional
school board, and representatives have even met with the state legislature.
With few activities in the villages, the Youth Leaders have sponsored health promotions and three-on-three
basketball tournaments, and they work with village elders to promote the health of the Inupiaq culture.
Nothing comes cheap in Alaska, with transportation one of the biggest expenses. Flying one student to the
opening fall retreat costs at least $500. The district originally funded the program through a three-year
Elementary and Secondary School Grant from the U.S. Department of Education. When that grant ran out, the
school board reached out to the Teck Corp., which is funding the program for another five years at a cost of
more than $1.25 million.
Through the program, students have learned their futures can be brighter, whether they choose to remain in
their villages after high school or to leave the area.
“You know, you taught me to stand up for myself,” one student told Woods. Said another: “You taught me that I
need to live.”
Virginia’s Albemarle County
Not all isolation is geographical. The small city of Charlottesville, Va., is tucked into the foothills of the Blue
Ridge Mountains, more than 70 miles from the state capital. But it is hardly remote.
The area is home to the prestigious University of Virginia, retired Hollywood movie stars, and more than a
handful of millionaire — and billionaire — wine growers. Not exactly the end of the earth.
But if you’re an African-American male who is good at math, and you find yourself in a high-level high school
classroom with nobody — or maybe just one other student — who looks like you, it can be a little intimidating.
What if you have a question? Do you raise your hand … or just let it go?
“When they’re in regular school, they lack confidence when asking questions,” says Bernard Hairston,
executive director of community engagement for the 12,500-student Albemarle County Public Schools, which
surrounds Charlottesville.
That’s why Hairston and a group called 100 Black Men of Central Virginia created a program called M-cubed
(Math, Men, and Mission). The program brings together more than 60 African-American upper-elementary and
middle school boys who show promise in math, the boys’ families, and mentors who help the students develop
self-confidence, social skills, and responsibility. About 13 percent of Albemarle County students are African
American.
The program kicks off with a two-week summer session, which is about math — and a lot more. The students
learn about academic and social engagement and managing their behavior. They read a book about what it
means to grow up black in America, such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X or Game, Walter Dean Myers’
novel about a troubled high school basketball player.
Hairston says he often is astounded by the depth of the questions students ask when discussing the books
with their mentors and other youth. Some students already are big readers, but for others, “This is the first time
they’ve read a book from cover to cover.”
The four-year-old program also helps by charting postsecondary paths for students who would be the first in
their family to attend or graduate from college. And it’s getting results. Final math grades of the participants
have increased from a C average the first year to B averages in four years. Of those students in the program
for two years, 67 percent were enrolled in advanced or honors math classes.
Though housed in Albemarle, the program also has reached out to students from the Charlottesville Public
Schools. And it has attracted mentors from across the region.
Juandiego Wade, Charlottesville’s board president, has been involved with the program for several years. The
first student he mentored is now in ninth grade.
“He’s on his way,” Wade says. “We believe he’ll be fine.”
Wade, chair of the Federal Relations Network for the Virginia School Boards Association, wears many hats in
his hometown. He lives in Charlottesville, serves on the Charlottesville school board, is a career counselor for
the Albemarle County Schools, and works with M-cubed.
“We say, ‘They’re all our kids,’” Wade says.
Eminence, Ky.
The Wi-Fi bus got all the publicity. That’s what the Kentucky media wanted to talk about. But really, people with
the 680-student Eminence Independent Schools will tell you, it’s about a lot more than that.
Not that they’re complaining. This is, after all, a district whose teaching motto is “surprise and delight,” a place
that prepares for Kentucky’s famously rigorous tests by, well, not preparing.
“The approach is, we don’t talk about the tests at all,” says Instructional Supervisor Thom Coffee. OK, he adds,
maybe they devote a week to them.
But what about the bus? We’ll get to the bus.
Eminence has earned recognition for its two-year-old program, School on F.I.R.E, which is a lot easier to fit in a
headline than “Framework of Innovation for Reinventing Education.” But they mean the same thing.
District staff and board members became concerned about the high number of former students dropping out of
college. In this small community in north central Kentucky, where the elementary, middle, and high schools are
all basically in the same building, it wasn’t that hard to find this out.
“You go to a local restaurant and ask, ‘Where’s so-and-so?’” Coffee says. “Everybody knows.”
Once it realized it had a problem, Eminence did something that not every district would consider: It asked
students what they thought. And the students came up with two issues they believed needed to be resolved:
Higher-performing students weren’t being challenged enough, and those who were struggling weren’t getting
the help they required.
A lot of people might ask students for their advice, Coffee says. “Very few people follow through and make
these changes happen for them.”
But what about the bus? We’ll get to the bus.
To address the needs of students who needed more academic challenges, the district formed a partnership
with Bellarmine University in Louisville. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays about a quarter of the high
school students take their core classes in Eminence, and Tuesdays and Thursdays they travel (yes, by bus) to
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Bellarmine for college-level courses.
“We were very up front with [Bellarmine] from the beginning,” Coffee says. “We didn’t want a watered-down
version of a college course; we wanted college courses.”
Now about that bus: one thing the Eminence schools pride themselves on is that everyone — students and staff
alike — is encouraged to express his or her opinion, whether or not it conforms to the majority view. For
example, a Student Voice team meets regularly with the administration.
So when staff members were considering having students spend an hour to 90 minutes in transit two days a
week, one skeptic worried about the loss of instructional time. Then someone thought of having a mobile
Internet connection.
“I can make that,” Coffee recalls the transportation director saying. “You want that hot spot? I can mount it on
the bus.”
Through the arrangement with Bellarmine, the students get a 92 percent reduction in standard tuition. The
district pays the rest by allocating $250,000 to the program. Students can earn up to 52 hours of credit, enough
to enter college as a junior upon high school graduation.
And what about the students who said they were having trouble? With almost a quarter of the student
population gone two days a week there is more time — and smaller classes — for extra help on difficult courses.
Eminence was not meeting Adequate Yearly Progress prior to the start of School on F.I.R.E. Now, according to
state data, Eminence High School is in the top 15 percent of Kentucky high schools.
In addition to extra help, students who remain in Eminence on Tuesdays and Thursdays are offered electives
that the district could not provide before, such as a class in social media. As a classroom project, students
decided they wanted to generate some media attention by getting into the Guinness Book of World Records.
“It started out, they were going to hold the world’s longest barbecue,” Coffee says. “They saw that as a
daunting task and decided to switch” to creating the World’s Largest Cling Wrap Ball.
The project is under way. And, if all goes well, Eminence schools could be the talk of the media world, once
again.
Just imagine: “Hey, did you hear about that humongous ball of clingwrap those Eminence kids put together?”
“Yeah! Amazing! … And didn’t they do something with a bus?”
Richmond, Ind.
It’s an old manufacturing town, where more than 70 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-priced
lunch. Still, Allen Bourff, superintendent of the 5,000-student Richmond Community Schools, says that, five
years ago, the Indiana district, not far from Dayton, Ohio, was making slow but steady progress. For example,
cohort graduation rates, while still low, were improving, up from 54 percent in past years to about 60 percent.
One morning in 2007 changed everything. That’s when Richmond High School was named a “dropout factory”
by Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz.
“We found out in the newspaper,” Bourff says. “And a shock it was,” adds school board President Linda
Morgason.
Bourff is even-tempered, thoughtful, not easily upset. But the designation angered him, and he called Balfanz.
The story might have ended there — with Bourff telling off the professor and challenging the university’s
representatives to visit Richmond and see for themselves what it was doing to improve student achievement:
its high school freshman academy, more rigorous STEM coursework, and a redesigned schedule to foster
learning relationships between students and teachers.
If fact, Bourff did invite Johns Hopkins officials to visit, not to defend or brag about Richmond’s
accomplishments but to help the district continue to improve.
“We realized that the high school dropout [problem] doesn’t begin in high school,” Bourff says. “It begins as
early as kindergarten and prekindergarten.”
And it involves a different subgroup than what you might expect. “We did profiles,” Bourff says, “and
discovered some of our best students were dropping out of school.”
The district identified high-potential and high-risk fifth- and sixth-graders, looking at such things as subsidized
lunches, single-parent families, possible family dysfunction, and teacher recommendations. School
representatives went to the students’ homes. If the parents and student agreed, they signed compacts to
commit to a college preparatory program.
In the Early College Preparatory Academy, 100 fifth- through eighth-graders are taught using the Socratic
method and engage in weekly seminars on topics the students find significant and interesting.
The district has partnered with local organizations, and Ivy Tech Community College of Richmond paid part of a
professor’s salary to act as the program coordinator. The board paid the rest of the salary. To help close a
budget deficit and still fund the program, the board made the difficult choice to close three elementary schools,
at a savings of $1.8 million.
The district wanted more detailed information about student achievement. It set up a Data Room in the high
school, staffed by two full-time teachers who closely monitor the school’s 1,500 students and coach teachers in
more effective instructional methods.
“We call it the ‘Data Room,’” Bourff says, “but some people would swear it’s the ‘War Room.’”
That kind of focus has paid off, he says. “It was a sense of urgency that permeated everything in the
community.”
Lawrence Hardy (lhardy@nsba.org) is a senior editor of American School Board Journal.

 

 

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