A year at DelSesto: will a bet on computerized learning pay off?

RI NPR - March 26, 2018

DelSesto Middle School in Providence is one of more than a dozen schools across Rhode Island using new computer software in the classroom, designed with...

DelSesto Middle School in Providence is one of more than a dozen schools across Rhode Island using new computer software in the classroom, designed with help from Facebook. 

In our special series, Rhode Island Public Radio’s John Bender is following students and staff at the school to find out whether this ambitious digital experiment will improve education .

Delaysia Jones is settling into her first year of middle school. Back in September, Jones, a sixth-grader, was a little shy. Now she’s quick to show off the work she’s been doing in her history class. She does most of her work on a laptop loaned to her by the school.

In all of her core classes she uses the same education software designed, in part, by Facebook engineers called Summit Learning. Students log into their individual Summit lesson plans, and click through their assignments.

Jones likes that she can follow her progress on a homepage.

“If you miss something on Summit and you get red, because you didn’t finish in the time that you’re supposed to finish in,” said Jones. “You can go back and take a test and it can turn green.”

This style of teaching, where students use computers to work through lessons, while teachers coach and monitor their progress, is what in education-speak is sometimes referred to as personalized learning.  

Down the hall, Delsesto teacher Haley Davis is working with her seventh grade math students. This is the second year of the Summit program at DelSesto, but the first year for Davis

Because her students are doing individual lessons on their computers, Davis says she can better track where they need help.

“So it’s really nice, I’ve been able to use that to my advantage,” said Davis. “I’m able to target and say, we need to fix this and move on.”

Most of Davis’s students at DelSesto are low-income and qualify for free school lunch. Some are recent immigrants who are taught English at the school. For years, Delsesto Middle School had high suspension rates and couldn’t retain teachers. It remains one of the lowest performing schools in the state at least some of the time.

When Principal Arzinia Gill arrived four years ago, the school was under state supervision to turn DelSesto’s performance around.

“For us, a school that was in trouble was flagged by the Department of Education for not performing for several years, and not showing any movement at all for several years, this was an opportunity to try something to improve instruction,” said Gill.

So she decided to try the Summit Learning Platform.  The software was free, as was the initial training for teachers. And the district paid for the laptops. Most importantly, says Gill, they could use the program immediately.

“We didn’t have time to build a curriculum,” said Gill. “We didn’t have a product or a platform where we could build all this. It came with everything.”

Today, 3,600 students across Rhode Island are using the Summit Platform, and many more are working with at least some element of personalized learning. But so far, there is little data showing Summit’s high-tech approach improves student performance in public schools.

The success stories advocates point to are mainly at charter schools, which are free from many of the restrictions and obligations of traditional public schools. At the charter schools in Silicon Valley California where Summit was designed, nearly 100 percent of students graduate and go to college.

In Rhode Island, Daniela Fairchild is director of Education at the state’s new Office of Innovation. Her office has been pushing schools to adopt computer-based learning software.

And she got help from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. His Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative gave the office $1.5 million dollars, and the organization has taken over development of the Summit software.

“Change sometimes is scary,” said Fairchild. “But I’d say if we do the same thing, we’re still going to miss supporting many of our students as well as we need to.”

The state is not yet collecting data on the schools using personalized learning software. But Fairchild says surveys show greater students participation, better attendance, and happier teachers.

“That is a leading indicator for stronger student achievement and student growth,” said Fairchild. “We been at this tracking this for just a little while now so we’re hoping to be able to really showcase how this is going.”

For its part, DelSesto Middle School is seeing some signs that the move to summit software is helping. Principal Arzinia Gill says those students who have been using the software are testing little better in reading and math.  But the school still has major hurdles to overcome.

“So we still have 75 to 80 percent of our students who are not on grade level,” said Gill. “And that’s the reality and we are working really hard to get them to move up. As long as we know we are trying our best to get these students ready for the real world.”

Next year, Summit will expand at DelSesto, and all 900 students at the middle school will be using the software.

In the meantime, Rhode Island researchers say they plan to collect data from school districts to find out whether their ambitious experiment in public education is the fix some schools badly need.

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