Amid uncertain future, city's Digital Ready initiative spurs schools to experiment

With one tap to a laptop, a homemade beat began to rattle around a classroom Wednesday at Brooklyn International High School. Then Hussam Jumah, a sophomore whose family immigrated to the United States from Iraq by way of Egypt, started to rap.

“Migrating was not my choice,” he began. “But I was young and had no voice.”

Beside him, Ayad Kaid, a freshman from Yemen, summoned robotic chimes from a clock that he had helped convert into an electronic instrument.

The four-student band, which called itself “Scholar Power,” had studied the math behind musical notation, the science of sound waves, and the social histories of songs. Along the way, the students taped video journals, produced a podcast, designed a band poster, and recorded their song, “Migrating.”

Brooklyn International has long prided itself on such interdisciplinary projects, which weave in an array of technology, but this year the school was aided by a new Department of Education program designed to boost that type of innovation. The program, called Digital Ready, offers resources and support to 10 high schools as they experiment with new tools, partnerships, and methods of instruction and assessment.

“They’ve been an accelerant,” said Ben Walsh, a Brooklyn International English teacher. “Like pouring gas on a fire.”

But the three-year program, funded with $1 million from the mayor’s office when it was led by the famously tech-obsessed Michael Bloomberg, also raises the question: will such cutting-edge initiatives endure under the city’s new leadership?

“I really have no clue what the new administration’s agenda will be about this sort of stuff,” said Joy Nolan, an instruction and curriculum specialist for Digital Ready.

Digital Ready, which began with a planning session last summer, revolves around four “change levers”: curriculum, teaching, assessment, and expanded learning opportunities, such as internships or in-school projects assisted by outside experts. The program pushes certain tools and methods — course materials posted online, project-heavy learning, frequent feedback for students — but lets each school set its own goals.

The first crop of schools that applied and were admitted into the program were all comfortable with experimentation. The group includes transfer schools that try to personalize instruction for older students; members of a coalition of schools that use performance-based assessments in lieu of the Regents exams; and participants in the education department’s Innovation Zone.

A handful of teachers and administrators spearhead the Digital Ready work at each school, with a teacher or two taking on each of the four levers. The program covers the cost of support staff, teacher training, overtime pay so educators from the different schools can meet biweekly, and whatever digital tools the schools’ work requires.

At Brooklyn International, a Digital Ready staff member linked teachers to outside groups that could enhance their class projects. So Tribeca Film Institute helped students produce a whimsical video about a time when dance is outlawed, ScriptEd taught students to write code for a class website, and the Beam Center showed students how to construct and program their own electronic instruments — including the one made from a clock and another built into a glove.

One of the principles pushed by Digital Ready is mastery-based learning, where students progress through a class by showing they have developed specific skills, often after many tries, rather than by simply completing a certain number of assignments.

The students discuss their project after a presentation. The students are (from left): Ayad Kaid, Hussam Jumah, MingHui Lian, and Miguel Gutierrez. (Patrick Wall)

Last week, a half-dozen teachers from different Digital Ready schools met over sandwiches to talk about their forays into mastery-based learning. They debated whether mastery reports should factor in student effort and how best to represent student achievement with charts. They spent a long time poring over one another’s student progress reports, which were packed with skills and standards instead of letter grades.

“I’m trying to build this movement at my school,” said Liz Dowdell, a physics and math teacher at Frederick Douglass Academy VII, who entered her school into the Digital Ready program and then recruited several colleagues to try the mastery approach.

Other Digital Ready schools have uploaded course maps and lesson plans into shared digital spaces so that teachers can align their work across subjects and grades. Still others have used digital portfolios to showcase student work and help teachers assess students’ skills in other subjects.

Marcus McArthur, a humanities teacher at City-As-School High School, said that he posted online a heap of lessons and readings online this year with the help of Digital Ready. When he was fine-tuning an interdisciplinary unit on personal histories — one reading has students researching violence against African Americans ranging from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin — he turned to his curriculum-level group for advice.

“It’s like an innovation hub for educators,” he said.

Digital Ready is funded by a grant from the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment through 2016, when it will have grown to include 30 middle and high schools. A new batch of 10 schools will be announced next month.

But beyond that, its future within the new administration is uncertain.

The Department of Education under Mayor Bloomberg prized experimentation in schools and tried to foster it. With its $50 million Innovation Zone, or iZone, the department encouraged participating schools to restructure their schedules, blend online and classroom learning, use computers to generate personalized lessons for students, and more.

But Mayor de Blasio and his schools chief, Carmen Fariña, have said little about experimenting with new technology or approaches in schools. In testimony Thursday before the City Council in which she detailed areas where she would “invest” herself, Fariña did not mention technology. Instead, she said school innovation happens when educators share best practices and partner with nonprofits.

Where that leaves Digital Ready — a program that promotes cross-school collaboration and external partnerships, but leans heavily on technology — is unclear.

Michael Preston, the education department’s senior director of digital learning who oversees Digital Ready, said that when the program’s funding expires in a few years, private money could be obtained if the city does not offer more.

“It’s really hard for me to guess where things are going,” under the new administration, he said. “For now, we’re really just trying to run a really effective program.”