Four years in, I.S. 228 hits its stride with high-tech math program

Teach to One, a high-tech math program meant to precisely customize each student’s learning, often uses airport terminology to describe its model – inside I.S. 228 Monday, it was clear why.

About 180 6th graders buzzed around a vast terminal-like space made out of several combined classrooms on the left side of a hallway, while more than 120 7th graders filled a long open room on the right side.

The students had found their names and stations on large monitors – like those that list departure gates at airports – then headed to 35-minute sessions that included teacher-led lessons at smart boards, small group activities over workbooks and individual tasks on laptops.

“This is a game changer,” said Dominick D’Angelo, principal of the south Brooklyn middle school.

Now in its second year, with six schools in New York City and 9 others nationwide, the nonprofit-run program grew out of School of One, a city Department of Education-incubated project under Joel Klein that attracted national attention and outside funding but produced mixed results in its first year.

Teach to One announced the results of a Teachers College report Monday that found students overall in the program’s first year made above-average math gains. But results varied among the seven schools that used the program last year, with several showing less progress than the national norm on an optional math test taken in the fall and spring.

Critics, such as teacher Gary Rubinstein who visited I.S. 228 in 2010, have said School of One seemed more focused on test prep and game playing than critical thinking and note that two New York schools dropped out of the program after its first year. The creators say Teach to One made many improvements to the original model, noting that it is aligned to the Common Core standards, includes traditional teaching along with digital learning, and features applied math projects that require critical thinking.

I.S. 228 is the lone school to have piloted both the School of One model and now the Teach to One program, which the creators operate for free in New York in exchange for the early DOE incubation. All of its more than 1,000 students now use the program for math, except for 35 students with severe disabilities.

At the end of the 2011 school year, when I.S. 228 first knocked down several classroom walls and tried School of One, the share of sixth-graders in the program who passed the state math test was roughly equal to the city average. Last year, the share of those same students who passed was more than 40 percent above the city average.

On the seventh-grade side Monday, a veteran teacher led a lesson on fractions for six students, while another teacher oversaw small groups of students rolling dice for a probability project and a student teacher monitored children on laptops.

Student Shelly Barkan had just started a two-week unit, or “round,” centered on probability that had been specially designed for her based on a diagnostic test and other data. Another algorithm sets her class schedule using the results of a daily online quiz, or “exit slip.”

Shelly, 12, had sat through a teacher-led lesson for the first 35 minutes of the math class, and now was clicking through an animated laptop lesson starring outer-space characters for the second half.

“It’s much, much cooler than sitting in math class and taking regular tests,” she said, adding that she found the daily computer quizzes helpful.

Students on laptops are required to take notes and do computations in their notebooks, which forces students not to guess at answers and allows teachers to check their work. Students who ace their daily exit slips earn stickers.

Teachers said the program automatically managed some of the more labor-intensive parts of the job: grading daily assessments, tracking data and planning and differentiating lessons. (Teach to One’s system automatically draws from a bank of 15,000 lessons bought from the major publishers and offers them to teachers based on student needs.)

But teachers still have their work cut out for them. They must keep tabs on students as they move at their own pace through customized units, urge on less motivated students and answer to parents who can check each student’s daily progress online.

“We have to be on top of our game,” said teacher Oleg Leocumovich.

As the school day came to a landing Monday, the nearly 200 sixth-graders spread around the long room gathered their belongings as a school staffer with a microphone issued instructions – sort of like a flight attendant.