Monthly Archives: April 2013

IFL takes big step into Broward County, Fla., classrooms


In one of its biggest expansions yet, Innovations for Learning’s programs are headed this fall to 120 classrooms in Broward County, Fla, — an aggressive effort to teach some 2,160 young students to read.

The Broward County Public Schools, based in Fort Lauderdale, announced the partnership with IFL today. The initiative is to begin in August, when the fall semester begins.

Plans call for scores of digital devices — laptops, iPads and iPod Touches — to be provided to kindergarten and first-grade classrooms in some of the county’s poorest neighborhoods. The non-profit IFL will share in the costs for the equipment, as well as support staff needed to make the program run smoothly.

Robert W. Runcie, Broward’s superintendent, is an enthusiastic supporter of the initiative, which relies on 21st century tools and old-fashioned one-on-one attention from caring adults to bring reading skills to children who would otherwise lack the readiness to succeed in school.

“This initiative is critical because students who do not master the art of reading by the end of first grade are severely impacted, across all content areas, throughout their academic career,” Runcie said in a statement. “Early intervention, that is personalized to each student’s needs, is critical in improving the rates of students who enter our second grade classrooms as proficient readers on or above grade level.”

United Way of Broward will help in the effort to recruit volunteers from the business world to tutor the children, giving one-half hour a week to help them with their lessons remotely, using the Internet and telephones to communicate from their work places to the kids’ classrooms.

“This is a one of a kind program in our district that leverages technology to maximize personalized literacy instruction and provides a unique opportunity for community leaders to tutor students in a manner, which minimally impacts their schedule, “ said Dr. Marie Wright. the district’s executive director, for instruction and interventions.

Innovations for Learning is equally excited.

“Broward is the rare example of a large urban school district that was able to see an innovative idea and move it through their process with enthusiasm and move it through quickly,” said Barbara Gilbert, IFL’s national education director. “Normally, it gets very complicated and take a long time or you have departmental issues. Broward had none of that. It was very collaborative.”

— Photo (left to right):  Seth Weinberger, IFL Founder and CEO, Dr. Marie Wright, Executive Director, Instruction & Interventions, Broward County Public Schools, Superintendent Robert W. Runcie, Broward County Public Schools, and Barbara Gilbert, IFL National Education Director.
Photo and story by Howard Goodman.

Tutors, sign up now to meet your students!

Screen Shot 2013-04-26 at 5.06.08 PM

It’s the time of year for Innovations for Learning tutors to be making plans for end-of-the-year get-togethers with the students they’re helping learn to read.

About 1,300 adults are devoting a half-hour each week to communicating, via telephone and the computer, with children in low-income neighborhood schools. From their desks in corporations like AT&T and agencies like the U.S. Coast Guard, the grownups are giving first-graders some precious personal attention and encouragement to get them started on a successful path through school.

To cap the experience, the volunteers will travel to the kids’ classrooms to read stories, play word games, enjoy story-building exercises, and — very often — bask in the glow of the kids’ appreciation.

dan's screen grabThis year, the process for signing up and planning for these school visits is streamlined, thanks to a new computer program on the IFL web page for tutors that allows tutors to sign up with a click on the “RSVP” button and to see instantly who else among their coworkers is planning to attend. The new tool also lets classroom teachers and TutorMate coordinators see how many visitors to expect.

The new system went active earlier this month, thanks to crucial help from IFL’s partner for technical matters, Photon, based in India.

Until now, organizing the end-of-year visits was rather haphazard. “We never knew who was going to come,” said Cary Zakon, IFL’s director of TutorMate operations. “Now, it gives us some foresight. If we see that registration is lagging, we can send out reminders to the coordinators. And if we get fewer than three people signed up, we’ll cancel the event.”

Hopefully, that won’t happen very often. Because one thing that tutors, teachers and students all have learned — these are great events.

As one tutor told us after a visit last year: “It was so great to have an opportunity to meet our students — we had an amazing time! The students were so excited to meet us in person and and they loved the books and our token gifts.”

For more information on the visits and registering for them, click here.

Photo: JP Morgan Chase employees at classroom party, 2011. From IFL video.

Staff reflections: Caryn Weiner


In this series, “Staff Reflections,” we introduce the members of the Innovations for Learning team, who will tell us what brought them to our organization and why they’re excited to do this work.

Today: Caryn Weiner, Co-editor, Publications.

I have known Seth Weinberger, Barb Goodman and their family for many years and had the pleasure of watching Seth’s wheels turning as he conceived and incubated what is now, 20 years later, Innovations for Learning. 

Our children were young, and Seth, Barb, and I helped to found a nonprofit preschool in Evanston, Ill., that focused on inclusion. For years after that, Barb and I worked as partners in a volunteer capacity to raise funds and awareness for our venture, all while raising our families.

I didn’t know 30 years ago how my work and personal life would intersect and come full circle.

My first job after completing my masters degree in social work was with a YWCA program in the Uptown neighborhood in the Chicago which housed an early childhood Title XX daycare program and an after-school program for school-age kids.

My next job was as a therapist with adolescents and families at Response Center in the Chicago suburb of Skokie. I also worked closely with the schools in the area presenting programs and workshops for students and parents, as well as school staff.

I also had a stint for many years as a Roving Reader, a program founded by the Foster Reading Center in Evanston to promote literacy and now part of Child Care Center of Evanston. It was originally designed for school-age children, but by the time I joined, the program focused on early literacy skills — the building blocks for future success in school.

I visited a number of daycare homes twice each week. My job was to expose the kids and their daycare providers to quality literature and to offer stimulating and enriching experiences related to literacy.  

Over the years, I formed lovely relationships with the providers and watched as their charges grew up and moved on to kindergarten. My hope was always that I had left them with a love of books and reading.

Then, four years ago, I had the good fortune to join Seth and the amazing IFL staff, part time, as Barb’s work partner. Our mission then was to grow the online tutoring program, which today is known as TutorMate. That program grew, and as new full-time staff came onboard, Barb and I stepped back. 

To watch TutorMate develop into the program it is today has been amazing.

Back in the day, Barb and I did trainings in person with a slide show. The program itself was much less interactive and dynamic. There was no help desk, no online sign-up nor phone conference training, and there were way more bugs!

Still, each time we went out to talk with or train volunteers at their workplaces, it was quite clear that something wonderful was going on.

Tutors loved being part of their students’ lives each week, and their coworkers were hearing about it and wanted to participate, too. Heartwarming stories about tutoring and its rewards were being shared. And when Barb and I went out to visit classrooms and had the privilege of meeting the students and teachers, that was just further confirmation.

We spent lots of time online and on the phone with tutors and teachers: training, helping with scheduling, troubleshooting technical issues, and getting to know them personally. Many are still with the program. Compared with the scope and quality of today’s TutorMate, they were pioneers!

Today, my role is a bit in flux as Seth’s wheels continue to turn and new projects and ideas form. Barb and I are now working on communication projects and the annual report. I look forward to whatever my new role with IFL will be – and to watching the organization grow.

Innovation. It’s the name of the course

Indiana high school teacher Don Wettrick is so giddy about innovation that he’s teaching a course in it.

To be more accurate, the teenagers pretty much teach themselves. Wettrick’s main role is to set things up so this can happen. “My students, they teach me,” he says.

It’s the students who come up with subjects to explore and projects to complete. One kid, for example, had the idea of writing and publishing a book.

Wettrick’s response: “Let’s do it!”

Never mind that Wettrick didn’t know how to self-publish a book. He simply encouraged the kid to figure out what he wanted to accomplish and the steps it would take to get there. “We backwards-design everything,” Wettrick says.

They reached out to the worlds of business and tech and found experts in self-publishing. “You find that there are plenty of people dying to help,” he says.

The class began last fall with a dozen students, and already has reaped “amazing” results, Wettrick says — not least of which, being among the 8,000 winners selected to test the highly anticipated Google Glass (more about that below).

One group of kids worked with solar-energy companies to figure out how to get their school off the grid (getting the school board to implement the plan — that’s another hurdle). Another, inspired by a 60 Minutes segment, put iPads into the hands of autistic children.

Some students have started a site that enables kids to collaborate on books or videos on subjects that interest them. It’s called Student HackEd. For example, some students are holding a discussion on how teens can share knowledge globally through a high school MOOC  (massive open online course). So far, they have participants from Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany and Uganda.

One politically-minded young man worked with the state General Assembly on educational reform and, with another student, started a TV round-table discussion show with the town’s local decision-makers.

“The class has provided me with the opportunity to do things that no pre-calculus class, no biology class, no traditional class can offer,” said the student, Connor Shank. “No other class can allow me to go the State House and talk to senators and congressmen and speak to them one-on-one.

“That’s real education. That’s innovation, and that’s the future.”

The high-energy Wettrick, 40, is a teacher at Franklin Community High School, outside Indianapolis. A dozen years ago, he quit teaching English to teach broadcasting.

His students were soon making documentaries about life around town, and he thought the works were so good that he started a film festival to show them off in a downtown movie theater. He also posted them on YouTube so that people outside their town of 25,000 could see them. Before long, the kids’ movies were getting 200 to 300 views. And the festival had expanded to include videos from schools throughout their own Johnson County, Ind.

Wettrick was floored by the quality of the students’ work, which grew out of the kids’ own passions and interests — such as this documentary about homeless teens.

Then he thought, why stop at filmmaking? Why not give kids other chances to let their imaginations loose and see what they can accomplish? By this time, the Indiana teacher was heavily influenced by thinker Daniel Pink’s TED Talk (5.2 million views to date) and book, Drive

“Freedom and autonomy are the key words of the class,” Wettrick says. “It’s up to the students to find a topic and then get two experts to collaborate with. When they’re done, they blog their findings.

“They also have to research the Common Core standards, find the ones their project deals with, and demonstrate their mastery of those standards.”

In February, a student named Briceson Hill saw a video about Google’s contest to find testers for its newest invention, Google Glass — a combination of eyeglasses and smartphone that puts online tools to use in real time — and quickly persuaded the Innovations class to enter.

Trouble was, the contest deadline was that very day. But in a scant two hours, the class wrote and produced a 15-second video featuring Wettrick — who normally talks at machine-gun pace anyway — rapidly laying out their case.

“If I’m selected, it won’t just be for me, It’ll be for my entire class,” Wettrick races to say in the video. “I run a publicly educated class called Innovations, and in this class we communicate and collaborate with other experts. This would allow us the opportunity to work with Google and then communicate our results to the world.”

Good news came on March 29. Google sent a tweet: “You’re invited to join our @googleexplore program. Woohoo!”

Wettrick is now waiting for word from Google to fly out to Silicon Valley and receive his pair of glasses, which will cost him $1,500 he says he’s happy to pay. He’s getting impatient. His seniors are graduating in a few weeks.

Once he gets the glasses, “I can be teaching a class and have other Google Hangout people watch my class,” Wettrick said in a TV interview. “I think that’s exciting, collaborating with people  — who knows? — all over the world.”

Not every class project has succeeded so well. “We fail beautifully. Nobody does that better,” Wettrick says exuberantly.

One student trained special-ed kids to run a coffee shop inside the school, but the administration closed it down after the cafeteria complained about the competition. Alternative energy-minded kids proved that converting Franklin Community High to solar would save money in the long run, but implementation will have to chill for want of $400,000 in start-up costs.

Nevertheless, Innovations projects keep expanding in scope. The class communicates all its doings on a YouTube channel called TheFocusShowOnline. And, increasingly, on Twitter, which Wettrick calls “the greatest educational development tool I’ve ever seen.”

“I’ve been connected with the world’s greatest teachers through Twitter. End of story.”

He urges other teachers to share what they’re doing, via Twitter or other social-media.

“I think our students are more savvy and innovative,” he says, “and it’s time people heard about the positive stories.”


— Story by Howard Goodman

Staff reflections: Frank Spranze

DSC_0025 - Version 2In this series, “Staff Reflections,” we introduce the members of the Innovations for Learning team, who will tell us what brought them to our organization and why they’re excited to do this work. 
Today: Frank Spranze, Help Desk Manager.

I’m known at Innovations for Learning as a tech guy, but I’ve done a little of everything over the years — from restaurant ownership to law enforcement to mortgage brokering, as well as computer repair and maintenance.

I came to IFL in the summer of 2009 to fill a temporary position doing TeacherMate field installations in Chicago Public School classrooms.

My position has morphed. Now it’s mainly online tech support for our TutorMate program. My main task is to provide real-time support for our volunteer tutors and students coast to coast. I work from a bank of computer screens in suburban Chicago, communicating to dozens of classrooms every school day.

Frank's command post

Frank’s command post

Keeping that all going has its challenges.  When you combine kids and personal computers, you’re going to have lots of little things go wrong: adjusting the volume, resizing windows, closing programs that students open by accident.  Children often change settings on the PCs in the classroom, sometimes disrupting tutoring sessions in mid-session, or prevent them from starting.

I have created my own systems to keep us afloat. My mornings are filled with preparation, preparation, and more preparation — making sure I am properly connected remotely to all the classrooms, for starters.

As you might imagine, new technology is not always 100 percent, so we are almost always finding ourselves thinking outside the box when trying out solutions. And I’m always communicating with teachers to correct problems or fix the settings themselves.

Although I provide support to so many, I myself receive support from many team members. This goes a long way to getting to our collective goals.

My perfect scenario is seeing all the processes of tutoring flow together to create that great tutoring experience.

Every year there are certain classrooms, teachers and tutors who just get it. They come together time after time to get their sessions up and running, like a mini orchestra. From these observations, I can always predict which classrooms are excelling, it’s a pleasure to watch it unfold. That makes my day.

My goal is to see more of those classroom-tutor-teacher combos excel as they get it.

Frank Spranze

The astounding cost of a high school dropout

Here’s a startling look at the high cost we all pay for every high school dropout:


The infographic was created by Rethink Education, a venture capital firm that invests in educational technology.

The information largely comes from a publication released last July 4 called “American Revolution 2.0: How Education Innovation is Going To Revitalize America and Transform the U.S. Economy.”  The 300-page work was produced by GSV Advisors, merchant bankers who encourage investment in educational innovation, and is well worth a good look.

Generally, we think of education as making a crucial difference in the lives of individuals. But as Tom Segal, an analyst for Rethinking Education, argues in a recent blog post, education is the lynchpin for society as whole.

What good is the economy without a learned population speaking a common language and operating at a high level? What good are human rights without a populace that knows the existing law and understands the cost/benefit analysis of change?

How can we have a legitimate discussion about tax policy if the majority of Americans do not understand where cuts would be coming from and how they would affect their lives? How can we spark change in the financial sector if the average citizen does not understand loans, interest rates, and basic budgetary planning? …

“Education” as a sector is about so much more than just “education.” It touches everything from Health to Economics to Defense. In other words, education spurs development and progress across the board.


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