[O]n the Upper West Side, the West Side Collaborative, a respected, long-established Title 1 school, used its participation in iZone360 to expand experiments in flexible staffing, block scheduling and digital technology — all key iZone initiatives — that it had begun a decade earlier.
This year, for the first time, West Side created so-called “personal learning modules” tailored to the literacy needs of each student.
Working with a team of faculty, Jeanne Rotunda, the school principal, scheduled the entire seventh and eighth grades for a combined literacy period on Mondays and Fridays to work in small groups on discreet skills , which are based on each student’s abilities and are mapped to the common core standards, as well as their preferred learning style and interests. The regular curriculum continues to be taught Tuesday through Thursday.
To help decide which PLM would be most beneficial for each student, and “to establish a baseline for student's mastery of a particular set of Common Core Standards,” West Side teachers developed interactive challenge-based assessments. One of these, the Pacific Trash Vortex, which is based on a Texas-sized mass of garbage in the North Pacific, assembles a series of documents that students need to study, including news stories, lab reports and maps of ocean currents.
Each student is asked to imagine that she is an ecologist/oceanographer who has been hired by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to propose solutions to the United Nations. Students have to explain both the problem and the consequences of the vortex if it isn’t solved, and create a Google presentation on their findings.
“The assessment is rigorous, engaging and authentic, and includes some gaming principles,” said Paul Kehoe, a 32-year-old teacher who helped develop the assessment.
Teachers also surveyed the kids about their interests: sports, say, or art; their preferred learning styles — working in groups, individually or with a teacher; as well as data from their assessments.
By freeing up nine teachers to work with 120-or-so students in the combined grades, the teacher-student ratio for the PLM groups is much lower than it would be in a typical public- school classroom: While the largest group has 25 kids, the rest range in size from nine-to-18.
To support the idea of student-focused learning, West Side has also developed a highly nuanced “outcomes-based” grading system, in which students receive a grade of 1, below grade level, to 5, above grade level, on myriad competencies. Part of the point is to get kids to better understand their strengths and where they need to improve.
During a recent afternoon, students shared their report cards with their parents in student-led conferences.
Natalio Gonzalez, an 8th grader who loves art (especially the work of Brooklyn-born graffiti artist-turned-painter Jean-Michel Basquiat) and was recently accepted at the esteemed LaGaurdia High School, pulled up a multi-page spreadsheet on his MacBook to show his progress.
“My weakest spot is in communication,” explained Natalio, who earned many 4s on his report card, but noted that he got a 3 in communication. He said students set academic goals with their advisors during a once-a-week “base-camp.” One recent goal for Natalio was to do a better job of discerning evidence and using it to make claims in written essays.
Nearby, Niomi Manigault, a seventh grader, was showing her online report to her mom and older sister, explaining she wants to improve her performance in social studies in which she got an 88 on her most recent assessment. She also said she needs help in math.
Judith Manigault, Niomi’s mom, says she is comfortable with the student-led conferences, which have only been in place since last January. “It holds her accountable,” Manigault said. “I'm able to reach out to teachers via email or schedule a phone call” with questions and concerns.
Both West Side Collaborative and Global Tech are one-to-one laptop schools —though West Side’s computer program predates the iZone. What the iZone has brought is both resources — including consultants who are expert at scheduling and technology — and, equally important, says Rotunda: “permission to push further.”
Importantly, both schools also have developed their iZone innovations in collaboration with, and in order to maximize, the expertise of teachers. That is not always the case — either in the iZone or among education policymakers.