Special Report

NYC Innovation Zone Tests Customized Digital Learning

By Ian Quillen — March 14, 2011 11 min read
Catherine Mitchell teaches an Advanced Placement English class at the East Bronx Academy for the Future, in New York City. The school is part of the city schools' Innovation Zone initiative, which is trying different teaching and learning methods to see what works best.
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PS 154 Harriet Tubman, an elementary school in Harlem, is piloting a personalized digital-learning system that tailors language arts and math lessons to students’ individual progress. At the East Bronx Academy for the Future, a 1-to-1 computing initiative is infusing technology into learning and giving students more opportunities to work at their own pace. And the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School in Manhattan has structured classes so that students can roam from one grade level to the next for certain subjects depending on how quickly they are progressing.

Welcome to the New York City school system’s Innovation Zone, a three-year initiative launched by the 1.1 million-student district last fall that aims to test new and different ways for educating students and managing schools, with a heavy emphasis on using digital tools to customize learning geared to students’ strengths and weaknesses.

The goal, ultimately, is to learn, through trial and error, what works and then can be scaled up to schools across the district. To identify those lessons, the district has partnered with the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University to evaluate schools based on a combination of subjective analysis and student performance on achievement tests.

And over the next three to four years, the school system estimates, it will invest $50 million in the Innovation Zone, including about $25 million in federal Race to the Top dollars and $15 million in private investment, to supplement capital funds for technology buying already written into the city’s education spending. This is taking place even at a time when budget concerns are swirling.

“In any work environment, the skills that are necessary are changing, and technology plays a huge part in that,” says Brendan Lyons, the director of implementation at iLearnNYC, the online platform hosting much of the iZone’s online content. Lyons had been an assistant principal at East Bronx Academy.

“Whether you’re in flush times, or in less flush times economically, you can’t get away from that argument,” he says.

Still, educators working in the iZone emphasize that the initiative is a work in progress that often blends conventional and new approaches.

On an icy February day in the Big Apple, East Bronx Academy teacher Catherine Mitchell clicks a keyboard, glances toward an electronic whiteboard, and calls on her Advanced Placement English students to fill in the blanks shown on the screen.

Students swivel their focus between their laptops and handwritten notes, before slowly but surely sounding out the answers—"jux-ta-po-SI-tion,” “ad-MON-i-shes,” “SA-tir-ize.”

Meghan Smith, 16, files a class assignment via Google Docs during an Advanced Placement course at the East Bronx Academy for the Future.

Mitchell clicks a button, and one by one, the right answers appear. Then, as class winds down, she gives out homework: Write an analysis of the central argument of The Dew Breaker, a contemporary novel set in Haiti, and submit it in a Google document, which can be edited remotely or collaboratively.

This blending of face-to-face teaching and digital tools is now routine for students here at the East Bronx Academy, a 650-student school for grades 6-12 that was founded in 2004 on the belief that integrating technology into learning is the best way to prepare students for college and careers. But its melding with the iZone has been as stop-and-go as the pronunciation of a new word.

“When you start a new initiative, there’s the work that has been going on, and there’s the new thing that we’re learning,” says East Bronx Academy Principal Sarah Scrogin, whose school put a laptop computer in the hands of every student last September, thanks in part to the iZone and its own fundraising efforts. East Bronx teachers have run a class home page since the school’s inception, and each student and parent has an e-mail address that uses the school’s domain.

“You’re sort of continuing the work that you’re doing and shifting over into the new,” says Scrogin, “and figuring out which parts do we like a lot and want to keep using or start using, and which parts do we want to stop using from what we were doing. We’re definitely in a transition year.”

Scrogin endorses her school’s participation in the iZone for its focus on a wide range of academic issues and its creation of collaboration opportunities for herself, her staff, and her students. It’s just that here, as at most of the 80 participating iZone schools, innovation has already been a priority. That lets teachers use their best discretion about how to integrate iZone content and materials used at East Bronx in four Advanced Placement courses and throughout 8th grade academic courses.

“It’s about being flexible and working with it and being part of a process,"; says Christine Cheliras, an 8th grade teacher at the academy. “And [it’s about] saying, ‘Hey, this really works, I’d like to see more of it,’ or ‘Hey, this doesn’t work at all,’ or ‘This is missing.’ ”

Klein’s Legacy

The iZone approach reflects the district culture fostered during the recently concluded tenure of Joel I. Klein, who served nearly nine years as the city’s schools chancellor and was still in office when plans for the initiative were unveiled a year ago. Under Klein, the district in 2004 launched the Autonomy Zone, a 24-school pilot that gave principals more control over staffing, curriculum, and budget decisions in exchange for a commitment to meet higher achievement benchmarks. It has since grown into the 500-plus-school Empowerment Schools program, which constitutes about a third of all city schools.

John White, the current deputy chancellor for talent, labor, and innovation, says the idea is the same for the iZone, with plans already in place to stretch the program to around 180 schools next year and eventually to more than 400 schools in 2013-14.

“There’s no substitute for motivation and ambition to achieve great things with kids,” he says. “That is the heart of not just making gains, but student achievement. For schools at the outset of this initiative, it’s critical [they] set examples for the rest of the system as to what’s possible.”

At East Bronx Academy, Cheliras, Mitchell, and other teachers say their example has been to weave old and new content together as smoothly as possible.

For AP classes, it also means easing the funding burden by having teachers instruct 35 students from the high-tech iSchool in Manhattan via Skype videoconferencing. The students at East Bronx, in turn, have opportunities to interact with iSchool students who are moderately better off socioeconomically, and often have more advanced academic skills, Scrogin says. And the collaboration has already paid off for the school, with the iSchool agreeing to give the East Bronx Academy 100 online credit-recovery licenses from the iZone’s fully online AP and credit-recovery wing, being offered at 30 schools.

“Let’s be real. Children from more affluent areas are not going to be bused to the South Bronx so that our children can experience learning with them,” says Scrogin. Ninety-one percent of her school’s students, who are mostly of Latin, Caribbean, or African American descent, qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, compared with 68 percent from the iSchool.

“Those experiments have been tried,” Scrogin says. “So this is one way of desegregating in ways that are really interesting.”

School Experimentation

The East Bronx Academy is just one of many iZone schools performing their own, distinctive experiments that are not always based on digital learning, and result in different implementations of the same approach.

Kevin Keane, 17, returns a netbook to a computer storage cart at the end of an Advanced Placement U.S. Government class at the East Bronx Academy for the Future in New York City.

Take two of the eight schools that are charged with exploring new methods for organizing time and staffing. The Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, which serves grades 6-12 in Manhattan, has structured some of its classes so that students can migrate from one grade to the next for certain subjects, depending on their needs, White says, while the Young Women’s Leadership School of Queens is a high school that has taken a different approach and offers students 90 minutes of flextime to seek out individual academic help.

Or take two of the 30 elementary schools piloting personalized digital-learning systems that adjust which lessons in language arts and math show up on a student’s computer depending on his or her progress. Students in the 3rd and 4th grades at the 400-student PS 154 Harriet Tubman in Manhattan’s Harlem section do some of their personalized-learning-system work in extended-day sessions, and some of it in twice-weekly 45-minute blocks during regular school time.

Meanwhile, Principal Sheila Gorski at 1,500-student PS 143 Louis Armstrong in Queens says her students are balancing two different iZone schedules. Her 3rd grade works an hour a day on Pearson’s SuccessMaker software as a curricular supplement, while her 5th grade has been granted a waiver to complete its entire English and math curricula through software from New York City startup TimeToKnow.

Gorski also worked with her staff to identify which of her teachers she thought would work best with the hardware and software. She reassigned some to a new grade level. “This is a pilot, and you really want to give authentic results,” says Gorski. “So not having people who know or can do it might skew those results a bit. So yes, we did align it to people who were already savvy technologically, but we also picked people who were highly motivated.”

Gorski also says she needed teachers who would be willing to learn from the data provided by the programs, even if the information was, as 3rd grade teacher Adriana Santacruz says, “overwhelming at first.” For example, SuccessMaker can provide a snapshot of what grade level of proficiency, on average, the class entered school at, how far it has progressed to date, and how much more progress can be projected.

“There’s so much” data, says fellow 3rd grade teacher Jessica Rojo. “But then you get to know the students. And it’s not just that they’re on a computer. You’re in a mini lesson teaching them, and you realize, ‘This child needs this,’ and then it’s reinforced when you see it in the reports.”

The result, say administrators, is an iZone floor, the building’s third, where engagement is high and disruptions are low. As Assistant Principal Salil Paingankar says while walking around the iZone floor, with a low but audible roar from the first-floor cafeteria in the background, “There’s 500 students on this floor, but you’d never know it.”

Gloomy Fiscal Outlook

As a grim budget picture unfolds for the city schools, Gorski says a lot is riding on the iZone, which has contributed heavily to the count of 750 computers at the school, where 94 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, and nearly half are English-language learners.

And even if the iZone allows PS 143 to stay ahead of the technological curve, Gorski says she worries about the prospect of last-hired, first-fired layoffs taking away the teachers best equipped for the pilot project.

In early February, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, unveiled a budget proposal that included a $580 million cut in state aid to city schools. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has threatened to eliminate more than 6,000 teaching positions through layoffs and attrition.

Despite the sometimes common fear of technology becoming a teacher replacement, a spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers, which represents 87,000 New York City teachers, says the organization has yet to take a position on the iZone. And White insists the program is meant to empower, not replace, teachers.

Eighth graders at the East Bronx Academy for the Future react to the comment of social studies teacher Nick Lawrence, at right. He created a website using the Ning social-network site to help his students collaborate with peers around the country.

And at PS 154 Harriet Tubman, where 95 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, teachers appear thankful, not threatened, for tools to help address diverse classroom needs.

In an afternoon 4th grade English class, Jacquez Addison sits in front of his netbook and reads passages about geography and climate, with a certificate for being “SuccessMaker Superstar” in November displayed on his desk. Across the room, Faten Ali, one of about 50 English-language learners at PS 154, reviews more-basic word-identifying exercises.

“We’re getting the practice on the level that we need at the pace that we need it,” 3rd grade teacher Anna Goldman says. “I have to believe … that’s a way with confidence that I can feel that they’re going to make progress.”

Principal Elizabeth Jarrett says early testing of 3rd and 4th graders in the program and a 5th grade control group shows the 3rd and 4th grade students to be making gains.

At East Bronx Academy, Scrogin says she’ll judge progress by the same measures she’s always used, like a 68 percent graduation rate—above the city’s 59 percent average in 2009, but lower than Scrogin would like. She says the iZone’s online and blended opportunities could be more effective for high schoolers than it is for middle schoolers, because life interruptions—incarceration, pregnancy, and a myriad of family responsibilities—occur more often with high school students.

Jomary Peña, a senior in Catherine Mitchell’s AP English class, says she’s also learned she and her iSchool virtual classmates face more of the same challenges than she would think.

“We get to talk to them, and it’s, like, I didn’t know that they would have the questions that I would have, too,” Peña says.

And Kevin Keane, a senior, says online credit-recovery courses have helped him make up academic credits while looking after his younger sister after school.

Says Keane: "[The iZone] kind of just says that, not that we’re special, but that we’re getting an opportunity that not a lot of people have gotten or get right now.”


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