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What vacation? These schools work to avoid the summer slack-off

Back to School Summer Learning

Educators at a Chicago elementary school spent the summer redesigning their reading program for the first and second grades.

They came up with the “CY-BEAR.” This fall, each student will receive a stuffed animal to read aloud to.

Sounds goofy, but principal Shawn Jackson says it reduces the anxiety to read in front of others and can help improve scores for the many children whose parents don’t read to them. That accounts for a lot of Jackson’s 930 students at Spencer Elementary Technology Academy. About 85 percent read below grade level and nearly all are from low-income homes.

It took about two months to come up with the plan — an example of how schools increasingly are seizing the summer break as an opportunity to innovate.

“During the school year, there are so many other variables that can come into play. Day-to-day operations, sometimes we get into their own silos, teachers have to worry about the 30 students in front of them,” Jackson told the Associated Press.

According to a story by AP reporter Philip Elliott, Jackson and his team competed in the Chicago Public Education Fund’s Summer Design Program, an innovation challenge that offered educators up to $10,000 to test their ideas.

“Most people would take the time to relax,” Jackson said.

Instead, he and his team rewrote the school’s reading program, overhauling how his youngest students spend two hours each day.

Elsewhere, educators are seeking to prevent the learning loss that many students experience while school’s out for summer

Without classes to attend, most students lose about two months of grade level equivalency in mathematical computation skills over the summer. Low-income students also lose more than two months in reading achievement, despite the fact that their middle-class peers make slight gains.

That’s according to the National Summer Learning Association, But summer learning programs targeted to low-income students can help close the achievement gap, the association says: “The effects of summer learning programs endure for at least two years after participation,” long-term studies indicate.

In Harlem, 40 students attended a day camp this summer intended to keep up their reading skills. At LitWorld Camp, they could read whatever they wanted over the six-week period.

Elliott writes:

If students show an interest in cooking or animals, hip-hop or vintage toys, leaders find books that match up with their interests. Students wrote songs based on books on hip-hop and designed their own toys based on the ones they read about from the Depression, Colonial times and ancient Egypt.

Read more about creative uses of summertime here.

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews: Youngsters attending LitCamp.

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Meet our award-winning tutors

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Innovations for Learning has recognized eight organizations for their outstanding support of the TutorMate program.

And it has singled out two tutors for particular recognition:  Tracie Zettler of General Motors as “most dedicated” and Julia Martin of Weyerhaeuser as “most inspirational.”

The annual awards were sent to the recipients on Tuesday.

IFL picked one outstanding organization in each of the cities in which TutorMate operates.

They are:

Miami – Veterans Hospital
Oakland – Farella Braun + Martel
Seattle – Weyerhaeuser
Detroit – Comerica Bank
District of Columbia – Booz Allen Hamilton
New York City – JP Morgan Chase
Chicago – CBRE (CB Richard Ellis)

Tracie Zettler was named “most dedicated” because she tutored twice a week after realizing that her student needed more help. (The standard requirement is to tutor once a week for 30 minutes.) If Zettler ever called and didn’t get an answer, she made sure to reschedule and call back until she got through.

Julia Martin was named “most inspirational” because “the level of detail in Julia’s tutoring feedback each week was amazing,” said Cary Zakon, national director for TutorMate operations.

“Reading them, it was so clear how much she cared about her student and also how much fun she was having with him. It was also clear that she was writing for the teacher’s benefit, too, and sometimes even included a message for her student there.”

The winning organizations were recognized for the following criteria:

  • Outstanding and engaged support from our coordinators
  • Meeting and exceeding tutor recruitment goals
  • High participation rates in the end-of-year tutor/student meet-ups
  • High levels of tutor persistence and dedication
  • Notable atmosphere of collaboration within your tutoring team(s)

In reply, we’ve heard from some grateful and enthusiastic recipients:

Tracie Zettler, General Motors, Detroit, “Most Dedicated”: “I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed tutoring this year. I was terribly disappointed that I could not be at the ‘meet your student’ day but I received a card that my student (Daniel) made me and it brought tears to my eyes and a huge smile to my face. This was such a rewarding experience; knowing that I made a difference in this little boy’s life means so much to me.

“I was so shocked by my award today! When it came up on the screen, my eyes were as big as lunch plates! Thank you so much for that; I am going to print it and hang it in my cube next to the newspaper article of Daniel and I tutoring.” 

Julia Martin, Weyerhaeuser, Seattle, “Most Inspirational”: “I’m very honored. And I was very fortunate in my assignment. The kids were highly engaged and the teacher (Cate Simmers with Arbor Heights) highly supportive. AND I didn’t have to deal with ‘yellers’ in the background at all which made my job really, really easy!!

“I’m really looking forward to next year!! (2013-14 that is!!)”

Joan Ai, Employee Engagement & Volunteerism, Global Philanthropy, JPMorgan Chase & Co.:  “Thanks Cary, for your kind message and the award.  The recognition is not necessary as we are glad that we were able to participate in such a meaningful program to benefit the children in your program.”

Stephanie Beck, Human Resources Manager, CBRE:  “Again, thank you.  We all loved the experience with the kids.  Thank you so much for the recognition.

Lori Hulvey, Asset Quality Review, Comerica:  “Thank you so much, Cary … this is so exciting!! Can’t wait to display this in the office.

Karen VeitenhansManager, Community Investment & Weyerhaeuser Giving Fund:  “Hi Cary.  I just wanted to weigh in and thank you …  This is a such an innovative idea and great opportunity for our employes to have a significant impact on student achievement.  We’ve been pleased with the positive feedback our employees have provided, and look forward to growing this effort.  Thank you again for approaching Weyerhaeuser and providing us with the opportunity to engage our employees!”

Staff reflections: Cary Zakon

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Cary and daughter Mira, now 14 months old

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: Cary Zakon, Director of TutorMate Operations.

As I enter into my second decade with Innovations for Learning, I am as excited and motivated as ever to serve our mission.

I came to the organization after a few years as a budget analyst and a few more as a network administrator. Something felt out of balance at those jobs, so I tried my hand at working with high school students through a non-profit that taught young people how to refurbish computers. I enjoyed the experience, but it was not the right organization for me.

Then I had the fortune of being introduced to Seth [Weinberger, IFL’s founder], who offered a new challenge — to battle illiteracy by assisting inner-city schools in the task of teaching beginning reading. His proposal and approach made sense to me. At Innovations, we use technology to engage and impact a young student’s path early on. Seth had a vision and I found a happy home.

Seth hired me in February 2002 to help grow his program, and we did. As we grew, so did my role — from acquiring, refurbishing and maintaining equipment to training staff and students, benchmark-testing our students, and conducting program development sessions.  I have memories (and actual pictures) of my home filled with computer equipment. Seth hadn’t mentioned warehousing in the job description.

Along with two other coworkers, we began in Chicago neighborhood schools.  At times, it was a difficult to witness the impact of poverty on young students and to observe negative school cultures. But I also got to work with some extraordinary teachers and staff.

I was touched in a way that I have not been able to shake since.

I wanted to help. I wanted to offer something that could engage students and make the classroom experience easier. I loved seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces as they used our materials. I appreciated how our program helped some teachers gain better control of their rooms and gave more students their focused  attention.

We started to see successes, and students were clearly engaged with our software. The downside, however, was using refurbished computers—we were in a difficult cycle of receiving donations, refurbishing, repairing, and repairing, and repairing some more. The hardware portion of our program was not sustainable and had to change if we were to survive.

Seth had a courageous vision for our next phase. In 2008,  we began to manufacture our own handheld device. The goal was to create a device that was easy for a student to use, anywhere in the classroom, and easy for teachers to store,  charge,  distribute, and to adjust for differentiated instruction.

Getting into the manufacturing business and migrating our software to a new platform was an ambitious undertaking. Maybe too ambitious: Over the the next few years, we learned we were innovators but not necessarily manufacturers. When the TeacherMate hardware worked, it was fabulous. The glow of students reading stories, recording and hearing themselves for the first time, being thrilled at completing one of our word challenges — it was intoxicating. (Although, to be completely honest, it could have been the knowledge that so many kids were listening to my voice reading the instructions, comprehension questions, and second grade stories that was so intoxicating!)

But the reliability of the TeacherMate hardware in the classroom setting proved tougher than we’d hoped. Our answer came when prices fell for handheld devices made by other manufacturers. Today, our cloud-based management system works fabulously using devices like the iPod and iPad.

We have come a long way.

Though my voice remains prominent in students’ ears, my role is shifting. I now manage our corporate partners and support their volunteer efforts in our TutorMate program. Tutors play a very special role in giving students one-on-one attention and reinforcing the kids’ classroom work.

Imagine being a fly on the wall as a ring is heard inside a classroom.

A 7-year-old (our student greeter) pauses whatever they are doing to answer a call on the tutoring laptop. With a few clicks, they help a classmate connect with their tutor. The student starts a 30-minute reading session with a caring adult. The computer screen flashes the pages of a story that the tutor controls — the same stories that the student is reading in class on his or her handheld device. Students practice words, acquire fluency, gain confidence, and learn to read

Watching this happen in real time is precious. Knowing that the world is filled with caring volunteers, and that corporations are willing to donate employee time to reach out and make a difference gives me great hope. I am thrilled to help our TutorMate program flourish.

I appreciate doing work that is meaningful to me in an open, thoughtful environment. IFL has fostered this approach from Day One.  Seth proved to be a mentor, leading with vision, tenacity, and plenty of patience. It’s been exciting to have new coworkers come aboard who share a similar sensibility and drive. We now truly have a community, people I want to talk to, people I want to assist, and people who want to assist me (which is especially helpful as I navigate work being a new dad)

My patient life has mirrored IFL’s patient approach. We are not in a rush, but we will both get there.

— Cary Zakon

Hallmark, move over: A tutor says goodbye by greeting card

DSC_0013Some of the people who volunteered as tutors this year became pretty attached to the children they helped learn to read.

Take Lisa Mach. An engineer for the Port of Seattle, she tutored a first-grader named John at Seattle’s Martin Luther King Elementary School, speaking to him every week by phone from her desk at work, going over his lessons for a half an hour as each looked his reading assignment on their respective computer screens.

When it came time to meet John in person at an end-of-the-year party for tutors and students, however, Lisa had to be out of town. She felt badly about missing the chance. So she composed a card for John to be delivered in her stead.

She put a picture of herself on the cover. On the inside, she listed  a dozen suggested “Summer Books After First Grade” and wrote a message:

Hi John,

I can’t be there to visit you at school today because I am on a trip visiting my baby grandson.

I sent this card to tell you what a really GOOD reader you are. I liked that you sounded out every single word until you knew what it was. I also liked that you used your voice and gave the words feeling. If the story was fun, you made it sound happy. When a boy or a girl was scared, you made it sound a little scary. Soon you can read longer stories about people and their adventures.

I hope you can visit the library during the summer and get books to read so you will be a strong reader when you go back to school for second grade.

Have a fun summer!

Lisa

“I am really glad the card worked, though I sure would rather be there to meet him in person,” Lisa said last week in an email. “This is my first time with TutorMate. I have a small sense of what it might be like for teachers to say goodbye to their little ones at the end of each year.”

 

Staff reflections: Seth Weinberger

DSC_0032 - 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: Seth Weinberger, founder and CEO. A good account of Seth’s background and history with IFL can be found here. 

He wrote the following a few days ago, as an email to the rest of the staff. It stands so well as a statement of IFL’s potential and purpose, we wanted to share it with everyone:

 

Today I observed a Chicago south side first grade classroom in a school that is 97% African American, 75%+ low income, and on academic probation.  The teacher is a first year novice.  Two-thirds of the students entered her classroom below grade level literacy.

Against these enormous odds, here is what this teacher achieved:  the LOWEST group is near Level I (grade level).  The middle group is reading second and third grade chapter books, and the highest group is independently reading Charlotte’s Web, a classic TEACHER read-aloud book.

This teacher has enthusiastically embraced the TeacherMate System from the start of the school year, and credits it for much of her success.  She is also a natural teacher, and will be a star if she stays in the profession.

Not every teacher is a natural, and not everyone will embrace our system, but this teacher has demonstrated what is possible.  And what is possible ought to be what our goal is.

Every student reading, most students flying.

— Seth Weinberger

TutorMate makes splash in Seattle biz press

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Some 100 volunteers from 10 Seattle corporations and the Port of Seattle are helping impoverished children learn to read through Innovations for Learning’s TutorMate program — and the Puget Sound  Business Journal has the story:

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To read the entire story requires a subscription.

It gives a good background on IFL’s programs (“the brainchild of Seth Weinberger, a former Chicago attorney. Two decades ago he decided to do something about illiteracy among children in disadvantaged communities. His idea: use technology that makes computer games so vivid and enticing to help young children read well from the get-go.”)

And it shows the enthusiasm with which volunteers embrace the tutor experience.

Introduced in Seattle this fall, TutorMate opens a door to community involvement for busy professionals who can carve out 30 minutes a week to tutor a student online but not the additional time needed to travel to a school.

“It’s very hard to break away from the desk and the building,” said Martin, a senior business analyst with Federal Way-based Weyerhaeuser. “This really fits the bill for me.”

Thanks to writer Brad Broberg, for capturing the program so well.

 

 

IFL off to a high-altitude start in Denver

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At most Innovation for Learning end-of-the-year get-togethers, tutors travel to schools to finally meet the students they’ve been helping each week over the Internet.

Denver did it differently.

On Wednesday, buses delivered children from two elementary schools to the city’s Janus Capital Group headquarters for a rooftop party.

Some 40 first-graders from the two schools, College View Elementary and Cheltenham Elementary, lined up for fruit, cookies and a book  — and then sat down with the Janus employee who’s been helping them learn their ABC’s. Together, they started the kids’ summer reading.

Denver Public Schools used IFL’s offerings in five classrooms this year as a pilot. Plans are to expand to 20 classrooms next year, said Dan Weisberg,  national director for IFL’s TutorMate program.

All the volunteer tutors came from Janus. The Denver Public Schools Foundation provided invaluable help in setting everything up.

It’s clear from the pictures that a good time was had by all.

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Kids line up to receive a book. They could choose one of three that Janus made available to them.

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— photos by Dan Weisberg

Florida Virtual School funding threatened while online enrollments on rise

040913-met-flvs-03Florida Virtual School is one of the oldest and largest online ventures for K-12 education, serving more than 150,000 students last year in full-time and part-time courses.

But a bill passed by the state legislature now threatens the program’s revenue stream, the Palm Beach Post reports:

Proponents say the bill, which is awaiting Gov. Rick Scott’s signature, is meant to level the playing field because the virtual school has an advantage over traditional school districts with the current funding formula.

But Florida Virtual, or FLVS, says the changes will hurt its bottom line, and is forcing it to look at increasing its virtual class sizes, cutting back on its offerings or laying off some instructional staff.

“This is a time when there’s (an additional) billion dollars going into education,” said Julie Young, chief executive officer of FLVS. She estimates that FLVS will lose $36 million next school year with the funding formula change — although it is still expected to get more money next year than this year.

The formula changes would also affect school districts, which have come to rely on online course providers to help manage class size restrictions, tight school budgets and other requirements affecting the classroom, as well as provide students more course offerings. Under the new funding formula, districts would take in less money for each student who is enrolled in one or more online classes.

Florida has passed a law requiring every public school student take at least one online class in order to graduate. And the state has also authorized the creation of virtual charter schools.

“We’re looking at a shifting time in education,” said Debra Johnson, principal of Palm Beach Virtual School, told the Post. Her school has 230 full-time students and thousands of others taking some online classes part-time. “There’s a move to give students a variety of options to serve their needs.”

Take a look here at the Post story, which provides a good picture of how Florida Virtual School operates.

Florida Virtual, which began in 1997 with a staff of seven, has grown to employ 1,155 full-time teachers and almost 500 adjuncts. All instructors are certified by the state, which recognizes Florida Virtual as an official school district — just like any other, except that it has no geographic boundaries. Most students take its courses to supplement their regular school work.

Here’s more from the Florida Virtual School site.

 — photo by Palm Beach Post. View of Kim Bouchillon, a Florida Virtual School teacher (seen in lower right hand of computer screen), during a recent morning session. 

Education innovation goes Prime Time

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Education takes the TV spotlight tomorrow night (Tuesday, May 7) when PBS broadcasts TED Talks Education, an hour-long special featuring an array of speakers who will hold forth on teaching and learning.

Hosted by singer John Legend, who has a foundation dedicated to alleviating poverty by focusing on education, the program is a collaboration between the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and TED, the nonprofit group behind TED Talks, an Internet phenomenon that puts thinkers in front of audiences to promote “ideas worth spreading.”

The lineup of eight speakers includes Bill Gates, whose philanthropy is sponsoring many education projects; Geoffrey Canada, longtime head of the Harlem Children’s Zone; Sir Ken Robinson, who calls for greater creativity in school have made him the most-watched speaker on TED, and Malcolm London, a young poet and activist dubbed the Gil Scott-Heron of his generation.

Check local listings for the time of broadcast.

For more on the program, here’s TED’s promotional material.

Rich kid, poor kid — all must, and can, get an education

What’s wrong with public education in America? Is it the poor quality of teachers — or maybe the low pay offered to teachers? The inflexibility of unions? An insufficiency of charter schools?

We’ve heard all of these, time and again, to explain what is inevitably described as the crisis in U.S. education.

But a couple of recent essays argue that these usual explanations are entirely wrong.

Sean F. Reardon, a professor education and sociology at Stanford, rejects the notion that U.S. education as a whole is slipping. “In fact,” he writes in the New York Times, “average test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the so-called National Report Card have been rising  — substantially in math and very slowly in reading — since the 1970s.”

But progress is not occurring in an equal fashion, Reardon says. There is a growing gulf in grades, test scores, graduation rates, college enrollment and completion.

It’s not a racial gap; the differences between whites and blacks have been narrowing slowly over the past 20 years.

The most dramatic disparities are  between the rich … and everyone else.

“The most potent development over the past three decades is that the test scores of children from high-income families have increased very rapidly,” Reardon writes. “The rich now outperform the middle class by as much as the middle class outperform the poor.”

Why?

“The academic gap is widening because rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students. This difference in preparation persists through elementary and high school,” Reardon writes. He continues:

High-income families are increasingly focusing their resources — their money, time and knowledge of what it takes to be successful in school — on their children’s cognitive development and educational success. They are doing this because educational success is much more important than it used to be, even for the rich.

With a college degree insufficient to ensure a high-income job, or even a job as a barista, parents are now investing more time and money in their children’s cognitive development from the earliest ages….

Meanwhile, not only are the children of the rich doing better in school than even the children of the middle class, but the changing economy means that school success is increasingly necessary to future economic success, a worrisome mutual reinforcement of trends that is making our society more socially and economically immobile.

Meantime, a former history professor and high-school teacher named John Tierney sees a revolution emerging in K-12 public education — a massive, grassroots rejection of the accountability-based reform movement of the last dozen years.

Writing in The Atlantic, he says the weaknesses of the reform movement are becoming increasingly obvious:

Education policies based on standardization and uniformity tend to fail…

Policies based on distrust of teachers tend to fail…

Judging teachers’ performance by students’ test scores is both substantively and procedurally flawed.

What, then, is to be done?

We don’t have an “education problem.” The notion that we are “a nation at risk” from underachieving public schools is, as David Berliner asserts, errant “nonsense” and a pack of lies.

Rather, we have a poverty problem. The fact is that kids in resource-rich public school systems perform near the top on international measures. However, as David Sirota has reported, “The reason America’s overall scores on such tests are far lower is because high poverty schools produce far worse results — and as the most economically unequal society in the industrialized world, we have far more poverty than our competitors, bringing down our overall scores accordingly.” Addressing poverty and inequality are the keys to serving America’s educational needs.

We at Innovations for Learning are acutely aware that too many poor children enter the school system unprepared to learn. That’s the very problem we were created to address.

But we disagree that we must first fix such monumental problems as poverty and inequality if we are to see gains in education.

The work we’re doing in primary grades all across America is showing that if we focus on improving teachers’ tools, content and teaching methods, and provide teachers with adequate training and support, they can help students achieve — even those from high-poverty communities.

“I don’t deny that kids from advantaged communities will have life long advantages,” says Seth Weinberger, IFL’s founder and CEO, “but a basic education should be achievable for everyone.”

— Howard Goodman

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