among schoolchildren

Where digital natives roam, paper and pencil have a place, too

Back in September, when Nancy Amling first opened the doors to her new technology-themed high school in Chelsea, parents asked her what supplies they should buy. “I told them, ‘You don’t need supplies! We have laptops,'” Amling said.

Over the next few weeks, she and her staff learned that paper and pens have their place. But aside from the notebooks students carry around, almost nothing is traditional about Amling’s school.

Located in the basement of the Bayard Rustin Education Complex, the Hudson High School of Learning Technologies is part of the city’s massive investment in technology and online learning, known as the iZone pilot. The pilot is funded with a combination of Race to the Top money, private donations, and city tax dollars.

Hudson High School is a “blended” school, which means its teachers combine face-to-face instruction with online courses and homework assignments. Each student has a laptop and every teacher has a webpage where they can upload assignments for students to access later.

When I visited last week, students in a math class were progressing through a series of online word problems and drawing out graphs of the problems by hand. In a science class, groups of students were creating PowerPoint presentations about famous bacteria, such as the ones responsible for the bubonic plague, while the teacher floated from group-to-group.

Amling said one of the most surprising discoveries was finding how widely students’ Internet-savviness ranged. Of the 109 students in her freshman class, some showed up knowing how to design a web page, use Google Documents, and send emails with attachments. Others weren’t sure how to save a file to their laptop’s desktop.

“There is that expression: digital natives. But just because somebody knows how to send a text and get an email, doesn’t mean they know how to be digital learners,” Amling said.

Hudson High School is also textbook-less, a fact that has earned it considerable media attention. Instead of textbooks, students taking an Algebra class are enrolled in an online Algebra course. Through programs offered by Aventa and Compass, two companies that provide much of the city’s current online courseware, students can progress through a series of lessons at their own pace. The programs aren’t perfect, Amling said, and she hopes to eventually have her own teachers write online courses.

“What we find is the digital content is in its early stages right now,” Amling said. “Somebody once gave me the example of when they took radio shows and read them aloud on TV — in some way that’s what digital content looks like right now.”

Students mainly progress through the online courses at home, where the majority of them have Internet access. For the ones that have Internet but no laptops, the school has been able to give them take-home laptops that were donated. Amling said that some students’ parents had cable TV, but no Internet, and she’d been able to convince them to drop HBO in favor of getting their children online.

For all her enthusiasm about her school’s blended learning model, Amling said that if she had more money, she’d hire more teachers.

“Education is a combination of using the technology to support instruction, but it’s in the collaborative relationships where students are learning,” she said. “Because if that’s not where the important piece is, then why even have a school?”

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”