When Ketcham Elementary School was selected to roll out a schoolwide computer-based learning initiative, Principal Maisha Riddlesprigger was skeptical about “putting kids in front of computers.”
Less than two years later, the effort has brought her school a kind of celebrity status. Superintendents and state lawmakers from across the country have begun stopping by this well-wired school in a poor pocket of Southeast Washington — where nearly a third of the students are homeless — to see how they are learning.
While test scores barely budged District-wide this past spring, Ketcham saw an 11-point increase in its math proficiency rate — to 49 percent — and a 4.5-point increase in reading — to 35 percent. Officials attribute the gains to the move to “blended learning.”
D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson has been an advocate of such programs, which combine face-to-face instruction with online personalized learning as a way to improve students’ digital skills and tap into the kind of gadgets that interest them outside of school.
The children at Ketcham, along with Randle Highlands Elementary School, could be among the first in the District to go through their entire school careers learning online part-time. Both schools feed into Kramer Middle School and Anacostia High School, which also have blended-learning programs.
John Rice, manager of blended learning for D.C. schools, said the District’s goal is to offer a similar feeder pattern in every part of the city. Four other schools planned to adopt blended learning school-wide this year: Garfield Elementary School, Browne Education Campus, Johnson Middle School and Patterson Elementary. Dozens more schools have classrooms that are using the approach.
Rice said that computers do not replace teachers, but the devices free teachers up so they can spend more time doing what they are best at: facilitating conversations, helping students who are stuck, or designing hands-on projects. The computers can help students practice their vowel sounds and math equations until they get it.
In schools such as Ketcham, where many students are below grade-level, computer programs identify and fill in gaps for each student and report back in real time on how he or she is progressing, educators said. Teachers can use those reports to focus their instruction for each student.
During a third-grade math lesson at Ketcham last week, one group of students sat on the carpet talking with their teacher about when they might use the concept of perimeter in real life and together calculated the perimeter of a triangle.
Across the room, another group solved math problems on a computer with the assistance of a penguin named JiJi.
Some worked on multiplication tables; others were solving problems related to perimeter and area. JiJi paced back and forth on-screen while they solved problems and guided them to the next screen when they reached the next level. Occasionally, JiJi would freeze while a sign flashed: Check Network Connection.
Despite any technical problems, the penguin is a popular motivator. D.C. officials reported bigger test-score gains in schools that were using the program.
Many reformers and philanthropists see potential in new technologies to shake up the traditional classroom and lift achievement quickly.
“There is a sense, after a while, that people keep trying to do the same things over and over again without getting different results,” said Margaret Angell, former director of secondary school transformation for D.C. Public Schools.
Now, she oversees a fellowship program through CityBridge Foundation that introduces D.C. teachers to innovative ways schools across the country are using technology. The fellows design their classrooms around goals of giving students individually tailored lessons and more choice in what they will learn.
“All of a sudden, it’s like unraveling a sweater and you want to unravel the whole way you do business,” she said.
Across the country, and in the District, the way computers are being used in classrooms varies widely. Some teachers record lessons their students can watch from home, so they can save time for more individual coaching during class. District high schools are offering flexible computer-based classes so over-age students can make up credits online.
At Hart Middle School in Southeast, 200 students learn math at their own pace in one big room guided by a computer algorithm that generates a new “playlist” of tasks each day.
Some schools are seeing fast results. The approach at Hart has shown some learning gains but also a lot of teacher turnover. Whether it will stay there is an “open question,” Rice said.
Noel Enyedy, associate professor of education and information studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, said the range of approaches to blended learning makes it hard to evaluate.
There are some promising recent studies, he said, but “when you start digging in, the results are pretty mixed.”
The most common approach has students rotate through stations, alternating time with computers and with their teachers and other students in small groups, similar to what is happening at Ketcham.
Milton Bryant, a fifth-grade teacher at Ketcham, has a CityBridge fellowship this year. He said he completely rethought his teaching approach after visiting classrooms in California and Detroit.
Once a week, he meets with students to look at their performance and set goals for the next week, and he lets them choose how to focus their morning math block. They are taking ownership of what they are learning, he said, and they are learning more. This year, he had five students score “advanced” on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System (CAS) test, up from two the previous year.
Riddlesprigger, Ketcham’s principal, said she hopes the school can continue to improve as teachers become more comfortable with the computers.
“We are seeing pockets of innovation and success,” she said. “Now, more teachers are saying, ‘I want to get my kids to that level.’ ”