Shy Roth of Clearwater, left, and Kristen Cross of Largo are absorbed by the i-Ready placement test, which often feels like a computer game.
CLEARWATER – The students are glued to their computer screens, their faces full of concentration.
One student has a hard time tearing himself away from clicking and the brightly colored images on the monitor long enough to answer a reporter’s questions. To the kids, it’s like they’re playing a computer game, even though they are actually taking a placement test for reading and math.
Belcher Elementary in Clearwater is one of 22 elementary and six middle schools in Pinellas County that were selected for the inaugural year of the Promise Time program with the i-Ready curriculum. These all are Title I schools, which means they have a high amount of students from low-income households. Promise Time is a partnership between the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County and Pinellas County Schools.
“Two of our three focus areas are school readiness and school success, so we invest in programs and initiatives to give children an equal playing field,” according to a JWB release.
PCS Superintendent Dr. Michael A. Grego approached JWB last spring to design an out-of-school time program to help raise reading and math scores, and out of that, Promise Time emerged. What makes Promise Time different than past programs is that now instead of having a totally separate school day and after school program, they are connected through a “facilitator” position.
“Really the lynchpin to the whole program is this position that we call a facilitator,” said Matt Spence, early learning project manager for JWB. “They’re a person who during the school day is an employee during Pinellas County Schools and after school they shift to being an employee of the after school provider, whether that’s the city or the YMCA. And what that does is, one of the things that research says is really important is connecting the academic portions of the school day with whatever the academic portions of the after school program are.”
For instance, Spence said, if the fourth-graders are doing a unit on marine biology during the school day, then the hands-on learning portion during the after school program could be building an aquarium.
“It’s making every-day, real-world connections to what’s happening in the academic day, and therefore it’s benefitting both sides and really increasing the student’s knowledge by giving them the hands-on experience that is a little tougher to do during the school day,” Spence said.
The facilitator can talk to the students’ teachers to find out if they want their student to work on anything in particular during Promise Time, and both teachers, parents and the after-school program provider can come to the facilitator with any questions, concerns or ideas, and the facilitator can organize it all and help make a seamless connection all around.
The school system was able to fund 50 hours over the course of the school year for the facilitator position, and JWB is able to pick up funds for additional hours. The participating schools are divided into “moderate” or “intensive” intervention schools. For the moderate ones, JWB added funds to total 130 hours for the position, or an average of five hours a week. In the intensive intervention schools, JWB added funds for the facilitator position to total 360 hours of facilitator times, or about 10 hours each week.
“So that really gives the opportunity for that facilitator to individualize instruction,” Spence said. “To make sure students are being met on level, where they are, and with the support that they need from where they are and not where they should be. If a student is reading at a second-grade level, handing them a fourth-grade level text doesn’t help.”
The 20 schools that were deemed a “moderate intervention” level are the following:
• Fairmount Park Elementary in St. Petersburg • Campbell Park Elementary in St. Petersburg • Melrose Elementary in St. Petersburg • Azalea Middle in St. Petersburg • Bay Point Middle in St. Petersburg • Largo Middle in Largo • Belcher Elementary in Clearwater • Pinellas Park Middle in Pinellas Park • Tyrone Middle in St. Petersburg • Sandy Lane Elementary in Clearwater • Lakewood Elementary in St. Petersburg • Lealman Avenue Elementary in St. Petersburg • Seventy-Fourth Street Elementary in St. Petersburg • Eisenhower Elementary in Clearwater • John Hopkins Middle in St. Petersburg • Mt. Vernon Elementary in St. Petersburg
The eight “intensive intervention” schools are the following:
• Dunedin Elementary in Dunedin • Belleair Elementary in Clearwater • Ponce de Leon Elementary in Clearwater • High Point Elementary in Clearwater • Pinellas Park Elementary in Pinellas Park • Woodlawn Elementary in St. Petersburg • Bear Creek Elementary in St. Petersburg • Maximo Elementary in St. Petersburg
For about the first two weeks of school, all of the participating students took a placement test – innovatively designed to feel more like a computer game than a test – that then gives instant feedback to the facilitator and tutors exactly where the students are in their studies.
“(i-Ready) is an online diagnostic and curricular tool that – we call it surgical, because it really identifies with the diagnostic where a student is,” Spence said. “And not just, ‘they’re reading at a second-grade level. It breaks that out into six different domains of reading. What’s their vocabulary? What’s their phonemic awareness? And it breaks it out much more in depth and does the same thing with math. What’s their numerous level? What’s their comprehension? All of those types of things.”
The program is also adaptive, Spence said. If a student gets a question right, the next one will be a little harder. If they get one wrong, the next will be a little easier, so it can find exactly what they do and do not know. But along with all of the reports the teachers get is one that shows if a student is spending less than 11 seconds on each question. If that is the case, then the teacher will know that he or she is just clicking through without trying, so the teacher can instruct the student to go back and spend more time actually working through the questions.
After the initial diagnostic is complete, the program itself divides the students into groups by level. For instance, Spence said, if five students are struggling with vocabulary, they will be grouped together to work on that skill, and the program automatically provides the teacher with curriculum and lesson plans that they can use or modify that will directly address these specific areas the students need to work on.
Kristen Cross, age 8, of Largo is a third-grade student at Belcher Elementary. While on one of the last days of the diagnostic placement testing, she said she enjoyed the program and likes that she gets to learn new things, like math and reading.
“It helps you with things that you’re stuck on,” Cross added.
Jacobi Jackson, also an 8-year-old third-grader from Belcher Elementary who lives in Largo, hardly even noticed he was taking a placement test. His eyes kept drifting back to the monitor, wanting to keep going on it. He did stop long enough, however, to explain what he likes about the i-Ready program.
“It lets you play games,” Jackson said.
Parts of the actual test – and later, the learning tools – feel like games, even though the kids are actually learning. Though the program does actually reward kids’ progress with actual games. If they answer enough questions correctly, a game will pop up that is purely a reward, though the game will be activated only for a limited amount of time, then it’s back to learning again.
Raylee Fleisch of Clearwater is the library, media and technology specialist at Belcher Elementary and also the facilitator for Promise Time. Belcher Elementary was the pilot program for a version of the connected school day/after-school program last year, but that was before the i-Ready program. Back then, they had to wait for their fall FAIR testing to be completed so they would have an idea of what they need to work on. However with this new program, even though the students weren’t even done with their diagnostic test, Fleisch had already been able to pull a preliminary report to see how they were doing so far.
“I’m able to see right away, pinpointing, so we’re not losing time trying to find out what the kids need,” Fleisch said. “It’s right there. Before, we were able to find out what the kids needed with our FAIR testing and our FCAT, but what to do about it? And that’s the nice thing about this i-Ready program because it gives you ready-made lesson plans, plus it gives the kids ready-made activities on the computer.”
These lesson plans are written out by professionals, Spence said, and help make better use of teachers’ time. The students will re-take the diagnostic mid-year and at the end of the year, said Debbie Volk, senior researcher at the JWB. Meanwhile, tutors and the facilitators have plenty of real-time data at their fingertips to track progress, included color-coded charts that indicate what grade-level each student is at in each area.
Michele John of Clearwater is an English as a Second Language teacher at Belcher Elementary as well as a tutor for the Promise Time program. She is excited about the program, especially in regards to the innovative ways it can reach kids and assist teachers.
“It’s specialized to each individual student’s needs,” John said. “So there’s no wasted time in teaching something they already know. We just hit exactly what they need to work on in each individual grade. And I also think that these programs, the kids find them incredibly enjoyable to do.”
If a teacher tells students to open up a book, some kids will immediately shut down, John said. However, these computerized lessons speak the kids’ language and engages them in the lessons. Also, in math, it teaches through images instead of words, which not only helps kids think critically in order to break the problem apart and figure out what it is asking, but it also levels the playing field with language. A student whose family may speak Spanish at home has an automatic disadvantage when questions are written in English, but all kids are on the same level when it comes to pictures, she said. Likewise, it can help all kids get excited about learning – not just the ones who come from families that emphasize learning at home.
“A lot of times, when students are in that situation, there’s that constant, ‘I don’t think I’ll ever succeed because I’m being held back by the situation I’m living in,’” John said. “But if they realize that their lives are dictated by the actions that they do, not what other people do, and the only people who can hold themselves and they realize the potential that they have, they will be much more willing to become involved and focus on achieving their dreams and different successes in school.”
Especially when programs such as this are exciting and not dry, it can help those students realize that these skills are something that will help them move forward in their future, John said.
When lessons click with students or they enjoy something they are enjoying in school, they get excited, Fleisch said. They then take that excitement home, and often, if a parent sees their child excited about something, then they want to know more about it, she said. Even if the parent comes from a background when he or she didn’t have a good experience in school and may be initially wary of the school environment, most parents just want to see their kids happy, she said. So if it’s school or their after-school program that is making their child happy, they probably will want to know more about it.
Promise Time also has a take-home component where kids can log on through the Internet at home to continue their lessons and “games” at home, so this is another way to get parents more involved, Fleisch said.
Because of how individualized i-Ready is, kids will be met on their level, no matter what level that is. If after-school kids happen to be gifted students, the program will allow them to work ahead and encounter new challenges, lessons and projects so they won’t be bored.
“If it’s a gifted child and they’re already reading at grade-level, maybe we’ll bring in some reader’s theater and get a book that’s at the next grade-level and have them turn it into a play,” Fleisch said. “And we’ll have them help write the script and then act it out for their group. That type of thing. We certainly don’t want a student to grow. Ever.”
Meanwhile, it will be an excellent tool to help students who are behind catch up to their classmates.
“In the big picture, research tells us that some students arrive at school as many as two and a half to three years behind their peers,” Spence said. “And students from college-educated families will have heard 30 million more words than a student who has two parents with high-school-only education. Just in ages 0 to 5. So there’s a huge gap before they even enter school and schools do a very good job of one year of learning gains per one year of teaching. So what we know is in order to remediate or catch those students up, there are a couple of key times. One of those is after school and the other one is the summer. Because middle- and upper-class students are either holding steady or gaining over the summer, and students in poverty lose up to four months.”
Spence said that students in poverty tend to lose two to three months in language skills over the summer and up to four months of math skills, so this even deepens the learning gap. However, using summer and after school time productively can be huge in making up some of that lost time.
Additionally, the Promise Time program helps teach more than just academics.
“The ability to stay on task in the classroom, the ability to stand in line and to exhibit appropriate behavior and all of those things that are non-cogitative skills,” Spence said.
“Character building,” Volk added.
“Those are all skills that, given more time in the day, you can really focus on,” Spence said. “But during the school day, with 18 to 20 students in a class, the teacher really doesn’t have time to do those extra pieces. So that’s really where you see enormous gains – socially, emotionally and academically.”
Also, after school programs in general help keep kids on track and out of trouble, Spence added. Research has shown that the prime time for kids to get into trouble is between 3 and 7 p.m., so this offers positive, structured, supervised activities.
Of course, the kids have already had a long day at school, so the Promise Time program is broken up so it isn’t all continuous studying. Tutoring at Belcher Elementary begins at 3:05 and lasts for two hours, Fleisch said, and tutors spend 30 minutes each day with each child or group. The remaining time is organized by the sponsoring after-school program organization. In the case of Belcher Elementary, that is the YMCA of the Suncoast. They get to work on other, broader skills, fun activities, and hands-on projects that connect to what kids are learning during the regular school day.
“Some of the components that we cover are leadership skills, college and career readiness, arts education, and 21st century skills,” said Jennifer Crabtree of Clearwater, operating director of Pinellas School-Aged Programs of the YMCA of the Suncoast.
The YMCA staff is also able to do hands-on projects and games that “disguise learning,” Crabtree said, such as learning fractions with dice or M&Ms. In one game, students each have a stack of playing cards and sit across from one another. They can even incorporate cooking, which sneakly introduces many skills, including measuring ingredients, reading recipes or dealing with fractions by cutting their meal into so many parts. Linda Thomas, school-age program management director with the YMCA of the Suncoast, added that they learn how to cook healthy recipes which they can then take home to their families. Therefore, the Promise Time program is also encouraging healthy eating which also can filter into the home life. If a kid doesn’t usually eat healthy food at home but comes home excited about a recipe she made in Promise Time involving apples, she probably will want her parents to go buy apples so she can help make and share the recipe with her family.
On Fridays at Belcher is “Club Day,” when the kids partake in fun activity clubs and field trips. The Club Day part lasts an hour, and the activities change throughout the year.
“At first I thought, teachers aren’t going to want to stay on Friday afternoons,” Fleisch said, “but what we’re trying to do is keep attendance up. A lot of times, kids take three-day weekends. And so if they go to their parents and say, ‘I’m going to miss fishing club,’ then the parents may go ahead and send them to school.”
Having all of these fun additions to the traditional school day can make kids excited to come to school and change their attitude about school, Crabtree said. It is further helpful having the facilitator role, so the kids not only see the teacher during the day in the traditional environment, but then they can see him or her after school in a more fun, relaxed environment, Crabtree said, whether that’s teaching kickboxing or going on field trips or doing fun projects. The kids love that and end up feeling involved and part of something, she said. And they know that if they don’t show up, the teachers and students will notice and will miss them.
In the end, what all of the parties involved want, from the JWB and Pinellas County School system to the individual schools and sponsored after-school providers, is to help the kids learn, have fun while doing it, and make a positive impact for their futures.
“I think (what we want for their future) is to graduate on time with a standard degree,” Spence said. “That’s number one. And number two is that they’re ready to go on for a college degree. That they have both the academic and non-cognitive skills that they need to succeed. You can do all sorts of fun with numbers to increase the graduation rate, but if kids are not graduating with the skills that they need to be successful in college and their careers, then it’s just a numbers game. And what we’re really trying to do is build the skills that they’ll carry with them their whole lives.”