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Going Paperless in the Back Office


Going Paperless in the Back Office

Deck: Idaho Falls streamlined its paperwork process by using a new software upgrade.

By Blake Smith

As school administrators know, it isn’t easy to juggle the many administrative challenges and government mandates while keeping a focus on what’s most important—inspiring students to succeed.

Every time a school district hires someone, stacks of documents are reviewed and processed by a half dozen or more staffers and administrators. Even the simplest equipment purchase requires records documenting the request, the funding source, the various levels of approval, and the payment. Then there are the paperwork and processes involved in recording and maintaining health benefits, student records and assessments, teacher evaluations, curriculum changes, and extra-curricular programs. That’s a lot to keep track of!

At Idaho Falls School District 91, all this documentation was handled through an increasingly unwieldy pile of paper and microfilm. Paperwork initiated at the schools and at the district office was sent back and forth through the interoffice mail, inevitably causing delays. With this system, it was impossible to know where a particular document was at any given time, and so time and effort were often expended to locate a piece of paper at a particular point in the process. The delays caused frustration, duplication of paperwork, and confusion. These issues were adding time to operations across the board, straining a heavily burdened staff.

Upgrade Opens Opportunities

While the district depends on a few software systems to speed and streamline some of these processes, the inability to tie together those systems and the various departments using them has kept administration mired in maintaining the overall information flow. The district needed a software system that could connect all its departments in a way that allowed them to easily share the information many of them needed to perform their duties.

As district staff reviewed options, they realized a new software system was not the answer— but Laserfiche, a system the district already owned, was. The district purchased Laserfiche records management system in 2001, and the system served the district for more than a decade as a records repository—the equivalent of an electronic filing cabinet.

MCCi, a national records management sales and service provider, suggested upgrading to Laserfiche’s Avante to better meet the district’s needs. Avante’s flexible licensing package and straightforward administration through a web-based dashboard provided business automation at an affordable price. The system’s Windows compatibility made for ready acceptance among the district’s 1,500 users slated to be on the system. It was critical to find software that would not require a steep learning curve if the project was to roll out as quickly and extensively as planned.

The IT staff partnered with a few key departments to start the transition to a paperless workplace. They met to review and map out processes and procedures. This was possibly the most time-consuming aspect of the project, but taking time on the front end paid big dividends by making the transition run more smoothly. Looking back, it’s clear the careful planning was a major factor in the success of the new processes. Operations in many departments were changed dramatically, and involving staff early in the process ensured those changes were met with as little resistance as possible.

Streamlining Billing and HR

One of the departments that really embraced the innovation was the Medicaid billing department. It used to take several weeks for staff to complete this billing, which slowed the district’s ability to request reimbursement for services provided to special education students. Services provided to students before the process was completed were not eligible for reimbursement, which meant a loss of funding for the district. The Medicaid referral process requires documentation and approval from several staff members, and the district receives and processes about 1,000 referrals each year. By integrating the new system’s Forms and Workflow modules with the district’s PowerSchool software, the byzantine routing of paperwork involved in each of those requests has been reduced to a series of mouse clicks and a weeks-long process has been reduced to just a few days.

HR-related processes are now similarly automated. Hiring a new employee involves three forms, eight workflows, three record repositories, and extracting information from a third-party database. Manually, it’s a daunting process. By integrating Laserfiche with the district’s AppliTrack and Skyward systems, the district is seeing a huge increase in efficiency and time savings in maintaining Idaho Falls’s 1,500-strong employee roster.

Ultimately, the enterprise content management system improved communication and consistency and increased efficiency. Success bred success, and when other departments saw these automated processes, the expansion took-off. In less than two years, Idaho Falls SD 91 has automated 59 business processes, including teacher evaluations, student assessment scores, employee resignation and retirements, transcript requests, personnel action forms, 90-day evaluations, employee name and address changes, mileage reimbursements, check requests, printing orders, and purchasing card requests.

The district is realizing time and efficiency savings in all of these automations adding up to a return on the district’s investment that exceeds $50,000 per year.

“The most important return on investment, however, is the time savings that allows teachers, principals, and other staff members more time to spend on what really matters—the students,” says Carrie Smith, the district’s director of human resources and finance.

Blake Smith is a software support analyst at Idaho Falls School District 91. The district, located in southeastern Idaho, has 10,400 students in 18 schools.

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Turning a Global Lens on Local School Performance


Turning a Global Lens on Local School Performance

OECD assessment allows stateside schools to compare their students internationally.  By Matt Chapman


For decades, we’ve talked about preparing our students to succeed and thrive in a global workforce. This isn’t just an abstract idea anymore. Technology has all but erased the distances between us and our global peers, and today’s graduates are facing both competition and opportunities for collaboration from around the world.

In response, many states have adopted higher K-12 standards, as they recognize the need for a road map to college and career readiness in a global context. While higher standards have set new benchmarks for student achievement, many school and district leaders are working hard to understand how best to improve their practices to support student learning and growth.

At the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), we’ve entered into a long-term partnership with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to address this very challenge. Beginning in 2016, we’ll be delivering the OECD Test for Schools, a voluntary high school assessment tool that gives leaders a way to understand their school’s performance in a national and global context. We’re partnering with OECD on this initiative because we believe this assessment has the potential to transform educational practice in ways that support each school’s growth and excellence.

The OECD Test for Schools is designed to deliver on that potential by providing unique and actionable insight into school performance. It’s based on and aligned with the international PISA framework, which allows schools to compare their results to institutions at home and abroad. Students are tested in reading, math, and science, and on their ability to reason and apply knowledge to solve problems. In addition, surveys collect valuable information on student engagement, interactions with teachers, and attitudes toward learning.


Personalized Results, Minimal Classroom Intrusion

Participating schools get a tailored and comprehensive report with best-practice examples from around the world to help guide continuous improvement. Using the results from the PISA-based assessment framework and the student survey tool, education leaders can compare overall academic performance, identify specific areas for improvement, and measure student engagement and attitudes toward learning. Participating schools also have the opportunity to access professional development and exchange school-improvement strategies through America Achieves’ Global Learning Network community of practice.

However, even the most valuable assessment information and comparability resources won’t be worth pursuing if it comes at a high cost to student learning. Schools and districts are working to streamline assessment systems and zero in on the tools that provide maximum value in a minimum amount of time. The OECD Test for Schools requires only a random sample of approximately 85 15-year-old students to return high-quality, internationally benchmarked data.

OECD and NWEA want to ensure that as many schools as possible have the opportunity to understand how their performance stacks up to the rest of the world and to develop effective strategies for continuous improvement. Thus, we’ve worked together to move the original paper assessment to an online format, which will enable us to cut costs in half and make this resource available to a much wider group of schools across the country. The assessment will be hosted on NWEA’s industry-leading Universal Assessment Platform, which also provides a stable medium for the thousands of teachers and students who use NWEA’s MAP and Skills Navigator each year.  

The OECD Test for Schools is a game changer. For the first time, schools are able to see how they compare directly to peers abroad. We can now know, instead of guess, how our students might fare when they enter the global economy, and we can see what’s needed to bridge the gap between old standards and new expectations. It’s up to us to make use of what we learn to help them achieve and soar, wherever they go.

Matt Chapman is president and CEO of the not-for-profit Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA). NWEA provides assessments, professional development, and research to fulfill the organization’s mission of partnering to help all kids learn.


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A School Leader's Guide to Autism


A School Leader's Guide to Autism

5 elements to successful programming for students with autism spectrum disorder.

By Kim Greene

In the past two years, Dan Almeida has seen a steady climb in the number of students on the autism spectrum entering Newton Public Schools in Massachusetts, where he serves as district supervisor of applied behavior analysis services. In 2013, Newton served 250 students with ASD—as of last March, the number stood at 291 of the roughly 12,800 district students.

“Newton follows a neighborhood inclusion model very closely,” he says. “The goal is for students to walk to a school right near their home. The majority of children on the spectrum are served in their neighborhood schools. To meet the wide range of these students’ needs, the district offers various supports—from preschool parent training to a middle school program that helps kids develop social skills.

Newton is one of many districts nationwide to develop programming for the growing number of students with ASD. In 2000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that one in 150 children were identified with the disorder. Today, that number is one in 68—with boys’ risk five times higher than girls’.

The diagnostic criteria for autism changed in 2013 with the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Previously, there were separate diagnoses for autism disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, and other pervasive developmental disorders, says Clarissa Willis, associate professor of teacher education at the University of Southern Indiana and author of Teaching Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Today, DSM-5 puts them all in one category as autism spectrum disorder.

“The criteria are much more comprehensive,” Willis explains. “[DSM-5] recognizes that autism is a spectrum. Children are going to have varying degrees of challenges with the common areas considered part of autism, including communication, behavior, social awareness, and sensory integration.” Instead of “pigeonholing” children into subcategories, she says, DSM-5 focuses on how much support a child needs.

With the guidance of Almeida, Willis, and several other experts, we’ve compiled five tips to help you build or improve the services your school district provides for students on the autism spectrum.

1. Create a supportive school community

School culture is everything when it comes to supporting students on the spectrum, says Barry Prizant, adjunct professor at Brown University and author of Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism. “You need to provide schoolwide information about students on the spectrum,” he says. “They can so often be misunderstood. It’s very important for people to understand that we’re talking about a neurologically based disability.”

“Principals set the tone,” Prizant notes of the opportunity to advocate on behalf of children with ASD. For instance, you can make it clear that when a support has been shown to help a student, it should be implemented in every class period throughout the child’s day, not just at an individual teacher’s discretion.

Think about classroom placement, too. If you have a self-contained class or other special services, are those classrooms placed at the end of the hallway, setting students off from the rest of the school? You don’t want to isolate kids with ASD.

Engaging staff in a team approach will also build a positive community. Invite special educators, general educators, speech/language pathologists, occupational and physical
therapists, behavior specialists, and parents to all take part in decision making—instead of having one person call the shots. This will boost staff morale and prevent burnout as well, according to Prizant.

Finally, when you build a team, be sure to designate a leader. “Usually, it’s best if there’s a districtwide administrator who can stay consistent across grade levels,” Willis says. “Team members might evolve as the child grows, but if there can be some constant, it makes for much more fluid programming.”

2. Individualize plans for each student 

There’s a saying that if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism, which is why individualizing plans for students with ASD is so important. “Autism is such a wide spectrum that students’ needs really do vary,” says Lisa Goring, executive vice president of programs and services with Autism Speaks. She cautions against a one-size-fits-all approach. “The needs should drive the conversation.”

The individualized education program (IEP) is the ultimate way to create a tailored plan for each child, of course. But within that plan, be flexible and adapt to the changing needs of the student. “You have to recognize that at each level in a child’s life, their services are going to change,” Willis says. What works for a child in kindergarten or first grade, such as a full-time aide in an inclusion class, may look very different by the time he or she is in fifth grade.

Data can help to drive those decisions. Almeida’s staff at Newton frequently uses numerical data in his applied behavior analysis (ABA) programs, for instance to track a challenging behavior. “We’ll talk about what we see as a positive trend. If it’s going up, do we need to make program changes? We rely pretty heavily on objective data as well as making sure the strategies we’re using are evidence-based,” he says.

3. Support all (and we mean all) staff.

Everyone who interacts with a student with ASD during the school day should have some sort of training, including bus drivers, lunch aides, and general classroom teachers, Goring says.

For some staff members, a general orientation at the beginning of the year will suffice. For educators working on a daily basis with students with intensive needs, yearlong support and training might be necessary.

Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin individualizes its professional development. “We try to customize it just like we try to customize around the student,” says Noelle Sapiro, an assistant director of the district’s Department of Student Services. “Sometimes we have to dig in a little deeper and provide more professional development in specific areas relative to an individual student.”

The district has a team of four program support educators who work with school-based staff as needed, for instance to review IEP goals and to offer coaching on assistive technology. Madison Metropolitan also provides rigorous orientation and onboarding for paraprofessionals who will work with students on the spectrum.

While you may choose to use in-district resources for professional learning, outside consultants can also keep you up-to-date on the ever-evolving trends in autism research. Willis has conducted extensive district trainings that include in-person workshops and school visits that span the year. But time and budgets don’t always allow for such luxuries. “You have to spend your dollars wisely,” she says, noting that Skype consults and interactive webinars are budget-friendly options for additional learning opportunities.

4. Partner With Parents

The importance of involving parents can’t be understated. Prizant recommends starting by gaining trust. “A lot of parents have already been burned by professionals. Sometimes it starts at diagnosis, if a parent is given the diagnosis in a nonsensitive way.”

Prizant says “going the extra mile” is an easy way to show parents that the school cares not just for the child but the entire family, who handle the around-the-clock challenges of autism. He has seen school volunteers set up monthly afterschool programs so parents can run errands. Other times, staff members have attended local autism walks.

“When that trust is there, people are much more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt and work through things together,” notes Prizant.

Almeida says that in Newton’s schools, the connection starts early with a 10- to 12-week course for preschool parents. The district’s team also conducts home visits to identify any assistance caregivers may need in the home setting.

“We’ll put together a package of consultation and training, giving the parents strategies to improve homework time or, for younger students, toileting or interaction with siblings,” says Almeida.

A home visit may be needed in some cases to help those parents who are struggling to get their children ready for school in the morning.

“We’ve provided that support before school because it impacts the students’ attendance. That’s critical. If they can’t get to school, we can’t educate them,” Almeida says.

In Madison Metropolitan, John Harper, executive director of the Department of Student Services, says the district maintains open lines of communication by traditional means like quarterly reports. Madison also provides learning opportunities for families, especially as students prepare to transition out of the public-education system into adulthood.

“In one workshop, families can hear directly from an attorney on how to progress through the estate planning and guardianship process,” he says. Or they can hear from other families about their experiences or learn behavior-management strategies. “It’s not to say we’re always the experts, but we can provide a certain viewpoint to align our efforts so there’s more continuity between what takes place during the school day and what takes place at home.”

5. Look to the outside community for resources

“Typically, I find districts are most successful when they know how to tap into resources,” Willis says. Local universities are a great place to start. At the University of Southern Indiana, Willis frequently receives calls from Evansville’s and other nearby districts’ schools requesting workshops and undergraduate or graduate tutors.

Madison Metropolitan has had a long-standing relationship with the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Waisman Center. The collaboration provides the district with diagnostic and direct services, such as speech and language therapy, as well as opportunities to take part in studies that examine how schools can better support students on the spectrum, Harper and Sapiro say.

The district also has very strong ties with Dane County’s Department of Human Services to help with students’ transition from high school to adulthood. During their high school years, students on the autism spectrum take part in authentic learning experiences in the community as a means of job development.

“We’re not a district that utilizes pretend kitchens or play money,” Harper says. “That’s a really key feature for programming for students with autism. We know that when we create contrived situations, students with autism struggle with applying that in the actual environment.”

Harper says the district provides instruction and coaching for students in paid-work environments. When students age out of the school system, the human services department picks up those supports. Madison Metropolitan has a similar arrangement with community colleges that allows students with autism to take classes, with the district, providing accommodation up until age 21.

“We have a seamless bridge of support from our public school system into the long-term adult support network,” Harper says. “We have extraordinarily few students with autism who don’t have a job or aren’t going on to post-secondary education.” 

How One District Uses RTI to Help Students


How One District Uses RTI to Help Students

Learn how this Oregon school fills learning gaps while building core knowledge.
By Courtney Murphy and Tim Swanson

On the first day back from summer break, a significant percentage of our students return to campus below grade-level in reading and math. As administrators and teachers, we know something has to change. While we can’t solve the dilemmas of society at large, we can address the systemic problems in school.

At Oak Heights Elementary School in Oregon, we use Response to Intervention (RTI) to address a couple of issues. First, students, who have significant learning holes still need to experience grade-level core instruction. If they are pulled out for remediation during a core instruction, they will fall further behind. Also, it is difficult for teachers to sufficiently differentiate instruction during an intervention block to serve students from the 1st percentile to the 99th percentile. RTI provides a structure for scheduling, staffing, and instruction that addresses those two issues.

Intervention and Enrichment

RTI schedules are driven by the agreement that intervention cannot conflict with core instruction. To accommodate these interventions, we have added intervention and enrichment (I/E) blocks to our daily schedule. Our students receive 35 minutes of math I/E and 35 minutes of reading I/E each day.

RTI looks at students’ performance on nationally normed assessments and ranks them in a three-tier system. Tier 1 students are students who respond to core instruction and perform at the 40th percentile or above. These students participate in instruction that enriches and extends their learning during the I/E blocks.

Students performing below the 40th percentile are categorized for Tier 2 interventions. They are organized into small groups to receive research-based interventions designed by an intervention specialist. We track their progress with regular assessments during six-week periods and adjust the interventions and groupings based on data. Students who aren’t progressing after several of these six-week periods move to a Tier 3 intervention. These students still receive the Tier 2 interventions, and all core instruction, but they receive additional minutes of intervention in place of elective activities.

Interventions and enrichments are also a focus outside of I/E blocks. Filling holes while building core knowledge spans our entire day. To supplement our core curricula and interventions, we are using a software program called MobyMax as a key instructional tool. The program automatically assigns lessons to students based on their skill level, ensuring students practice the skills they need to work on without spending time on what they’ve already mastered.

The program’s dashboard allows users to monitor student progress in real time, so they know exactly how each child is doing. Teachers and administrators can see which standards have been mastered—and which have yet to be learned—at the student, class, school, and district levels. Teachers do regular data-digs within the software, identifying areas that need instruction. Then, during workshop periods, they can target students for further individualized instruction as needed.

RTI is a system that refuses to allow students to slip through the cracks. RTI gives students interventions and enrichment to achieve and exceed grade-level benchmarks. Students develop confidence as they track growth.

Courtney Murphy is the principal at Oak Heights Elementary in Sweet Home, Oregon. Her favorite part of being an administrator is helping to grow students and educators.

Tim Swanson is a second-grade teacher and writing/edtech coach at Oak Heights. He is also the director of technology for the Oregon Reading Association.

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Book of Apps

Book of Apps

9 great apps to teach reading and ELA skills. By Catherine Logue

The science of reading is rapidly expanding. Recently, two studies explored the impact of reading on functional MRI scans. One found that preschoolers whose parents read to them regularly showed increased neural activity in the areas of the brain associated with visual imagery and narrative comprehension. The other found that reading fantasy stories stimulates activity in areas such as visual word formation and emotional processing. These studies confirm what we all intuitively knew to be true: Reading changes minds—literally! Still, getting kids excited about reading isn’t always easy. Whether a student is struggling with the basics or living in a book desert, there are apps that can help. Here are nine.

What Are Your Favorites?

Kristin Houser
Instructional coach, Aurora Public Schools, Aurora, CO
Confer. “I love the Confer app. It’s a great tool that helps teachers capture all kinds of data to monitor student progress in an organized and systematic way.” $24.99.

Sylvia Ibarra
Principal, Andrew Jackson Elementary School, McAllen, TX
Epic! “With Epic!, students can read books on a variety of subjects and across all genres. The app features different levels and a read-aloud option for beginning readers.” Free.

Katherine Zotovich
Literacy coach and consultant, Pure Literacy, San Luis Obispo, CA
Book Creator. “I love apps that help children build their confidence not only in reading but also in writing. Kids learn how to make a book by reading a premade book that acts as a tutorial.” Free.

6 more Great Reading Apps

Learn With Homer. An NYU study showed that this game-based app helps early readers make big improvements in print knowledge, phonics, and letter sounds. Plus, it’s fun. iPad. Free, with in-app purchases.

Mystery Word Town. Track down the town’s missing gold by solving word puzzles—and learning sight-word spelling. Kids can play with ready-made word lists (developed by teachers) or customized recorded lists. iOS and Android. $2.99.

Flashcard Hero. This time-saving digital-flashcard app tracks words kids know and allows them to add images, change formats, and switch up study modes, from typing answers to multiple choice. iOS. $7.99.

Shakespeare in Bits. The Bard’s fans can extend their learning through detailed multimedia study guides to five of his popular plays—from Macbeth to Romeo and Juliet. Each app includes in-depth analysis and stunning animation. iOS. $14.99.

Pocket. Pocket lets users save articles, videos, e-books, and more to one easy-to-find (and searchable) virtual file folder. The best part: Students who don’t have access to Wi-Fi at home, or who want to read on the go, can access their research anytime, anywhere. iOS and Android. Free.

Book Crawler. Organize your classroom library and  simplify recommended reading lists with this all-in-one book database. When a book that you don’t have in your database is added to your reading list, the location-aware app instantly flags local libraries that have the book in stock. iOS. Free.

Technology With Purpose: Seven Steps to Success


Technology With Purpose: Seven Steps to Success

Follow these lessons learned to ensure a smooth tech roll-out.  By Daniel A. Rabuzzi

Selecting digital technology for your school or district is difficult, and implementing it to optimal effect is even harder. Technology adoption is categorically different from even textbook adoption because the technology doesn’t just replace elements within an otherwise enduring system of learning; it may fundamentally change the system itself—potentially altering how we learn and how we define learning.  

So the stakes are high, and the margin for error is slim. The high-profile debacle at the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2013 suggests just how poorly a rollout can go. And while Los Angeles is the poster child for poor implementation, it is hardly alone; a recent ed tech market survey concluded that 65 percent of student licenses were not used enough to meet any of the goals set by the product companies or school districts. Only $4,625 (5 percent) of a district’s typical $92,500 annual spend on a given product was fully used.

More broadly, implementing digital technology must be much more than “just plugging in the device”; genuine deployment means starting with the needs of the students and teachers and melding tech seamlessly into the means to reach their learning goals.  

This is easier said than done, of course, but at Mouse, we have nearly two decades of experience helping thousands of schools across the country deploy new technologies to improve learner outcomes. Our aim is to empower students as creators with technology, while easing teacher and administrator concerns. (As an example, Ashleigh Jensen, teacher-turned-education-tech-specialist for the Kuna School District near Boise, talks here about how she and her students work with Mouse.) What follows are some of the lessons we’ve learned.

  • Agree First on the Purpose: Don’t let the tech tail wag the academic dog. What problem are you trying to solve by adopting a particular tech “solution”? Dr. Ruben Puentedura’s SAMR model (Substitution/Augmentation/Modification/Redefinition) is a useful framework, especially when he links it to Bloom’s Taxonomy. We’re also intrigued by what teachers are doing to use ed tech tools to help students meet the Next Generation Science Standards and the Common Core.
  • Include Student and Teacher Voices: Whose purpose is it anyway? Students and teachers, a.k.a. your end users, often lead the way in using technology—let them define the purpose. Include them (and parents) formally and consistently in the process to frame the need, select the best solution, and to implement, maintain, and above all intertwine the tech with learning.
  • Excite and Engage With Tech: This is a corollary to heeding the advice of your end users. Digital tech deployments in education often fall short because the tech in question is little more than a substitute (see SAMR) for techniques that don’t work well with paper and pencil. Many recent analyses confirm what our in-person observations indicate. For instance, a recent study of teachers revealed that only 33 percent reported that technology enabled students to learn content in a different way, and only 24 percent thought that it improved student engagement. A dispiriting finding of the OECD’s September 2015 study of technology in K­–12 systems across its 34 member nations is how little authentic engagement learners and teachers report with the tech that’s been deployed to date.
  • Can You Make It or Must You Buy It?: The tinkerers, hackers, makers, and visionaries within your community may well be able to help create at least part of what your school or district needs, in ways that drive learning and improve student outcomes. Remember, if you build it, they may or may not come, but if they build it, they are already there and at home! For instance, read how the 200,000-student Hillsborough County Public Schools district in Florida sought student and parent input as they created a BYOD model: “We saw a spike in requests from students and parents to develop a BYOD program. Students were already using their personal devices on campus, and their parents were in favor of device use in the classroom. All Hillsborough schools have now submitted their plans to incorporate BYOD as part of the district-wide policy,” wrote Hillsborough administrators Anna Brown and Sharon Zulli.
  • Embrace Ambiguity and Complexity: Digital tech’s binary nature should not be confused with the ambidextrous, multi-valenced effect on all that it touches. As the BYOD model indicates, districts will need to allow hybrids and yield some control in return for enhanced efficiencies. (Digital technology’s ultimate purpose may be to decentralize and democratize learning altogether.) Be prepared for managing within and toward VUCA: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity.
  • Use Tech to (Re)think Literacy: For the first time since the introduction of moveable type, we all have a chance to redefine and reflect upon what it means to be literate. In short, far from sidelining the liberal arts, the rise of digital technologies puts the humanities once again front and center. Successfully implementing ed tech will mean re-immersing ourselves in ethics and metaphysics, returning to the philosophy of purpose and the common good that’s a primary aim of education. Mouse works closely with Mozilla and fellow Hive Learning Network organizations on mapping what web literacy should consist of. Mouse’s Senior Director of Learning Design, Marc Lesser, eloquently calls our collective work on digital literacy “building cairns.” And this is no “academic” exercise but a priority for cutting-edge businesses right now—see, for instance, virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, Fortune senior editor Geoff Colvin’s Humans Are Underrated and Forbes journalist George Anders writing about the resurgence of the liberal arts in Silicon Valley and Alley start-ups.
  • Experiment and Play: If you follow the advice that’s been given so far, you’ll find laughter and learning blooming in your classrooms—the result of students and teachers discovering and inventing together in ways that don’t play out to a script (and that should be okay!). I have recently been in middle school classrooms in New York City where the students decided to use sophisticated digital tools to tell the story of environmental challenges in their neighborhoods and propose solutions to policy makers. Another team of students constructed small robots in an attempt to clean their sidewalks more effectively. These are all endless autonomous experiments that are born from and support our natural curiosity and our organic urge to learn. Is your district ready for aerial robots, wearable tech, game design, virtual and augmented reality, arrays of sensors, the Internet of Things? Your students and teachers are. They already embrace VUCA, for they know what Stephane Mallarme expressed in 1885: “We are always at one with the instrument of our magic spells.”

Daniel A. Rabuzzi is the executive director of Mouse, a national youth development nonprofit that empowers students to create with technology to solve real problems and make meaningful change in our world. Mouse is committed to creating more diversity in STEM and opening opportunities for students from underserved communities across the country.


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Turning Around Trauma


Turning Around Trauma

How some schools are helping students affected by trauma handle their anxieties and embrace learning.  By Jonathan Sapers

In her six years as the social worker at El Dorado Elementary in San Francisco, Jennifer Caldwell has witnessed significant change. “It’s a lot calmer,” she says. “The kids have strategies to manage and regulate their emotions. They’re better at talking it out and solving problems. The teachers have more tools to manage the behaviors and make classrooms more supportive.”

The change has been the result of training that the school received from a program called HEARTS (Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools), a prevention and intervention program run by the University of California at San Francisco’s Department of Psychiatry. For five years, the program also provided a postdoctoral student on-site at El Dorado, who consulted with teachers and offered direct therapeutic services to the school’s highest-needs children and families. For those (and all) students, the school now has a “peace corner” in every classroom.

“It is a quiet, comfy place in the room, with beanbags or pillows and different tools the kids have been taught to use to calm down,” Caldwell explains. “That could be a squeezie, art, or ‘fidgets.’ It could be a chart reminding them how to do belly breaths. They have a timer, and they go [to the peace corner] for a limited amount of time. The expectation is that after they use their strategies, they come back and rejoin the group.”

There is also a wellness center in a bungalow in one of the recess yards. “If it’s too serious an issue, if they are too deregulated—or maybe there is a person in their classroom who is a trigger—they can come here,” Caldwell says.

Similar changes have taken place at Grant Elementary School in Ephrata, Washington. There, kids learn the acronym HALT (for Hungry, Angry or Anxious, Lonely or Tired), which helps them communicate their emotional state to teachers. “If kids are coming from trauma, a lot of times they’re [feeling these things],” Principal Shannon Dahl says. “And if those needs aren’t met, they’re not going to be ready for learning to their potential.” Children can communicate their needs by referring to the acronym or pointing to posters around the school that feature the acronym or the colors green (ready to learn), yellow (moving in the other direction), and red (in a state of agitation).

The language used at Grant, acquired with the help of a trainer from Washington State University’s CLEAR (Collaborative Learning for Educational Achievement and Resiliency) Trauma Center, has been particularly helpful for a small group identified as “our blow-up kids,” as Dahl puts it. It turned out most of those children were simply hungry. “We started giving them healthy snacks at 10 in the morning and 1:30 in the afternoon. And they stopped blowing,” she explains.

Both programs are part of an effort across the country to address the needs of schoolchildren who have experienced traumatic events, including domestic violence and child abuse, or have witnessed violent crimes or disasters. Research indicates that such populations are much more common in schools and the general population than previously thought and that the aftereffects of trauma on the brain can cause explosive misbehavior, often triggered by minor incidents.


An Advocate for Change

Susan Cole, the lead author of two influential books on helping traumatized children learn and the director of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI), a joint program of Harvard Law School and the nonprofit children’s rights organization Mass Advocates for Children, remembers wondering about certain children when she worked as a special education teacher in the 1970s. “There were a few children who, when you calmed them down, could read quite well,” Cole says. “Some days they could read and then they couldn’t read. There was something missing that I could just feel but I couldn’t understand.”

Cole left teaching to become an attorney with the goal of improving education rights for children who felt marginalized at school, and in the late 1980s she started working at Mass Advocates as a staff attorney. When stringent state school expulsion laws were passed in the early 1990s, she began representing affected children and families.

Facing a newly unsympathetic system, Cole became interested in the behaviors that were prompting the expulsions. They all had a common theme, she says: “Most of those kids had experienced tremendous traumatic events.” So Cole began collaborating with trauma experts and other attorneys; one result was the book Helping Traumatized Children Learn: A Report and Policy Agenda. Its follow-up, Creating and Advocating for Trauma-Sensitive Schools, was based on the work of TLPI. It describes a process for creating a trauma-sensitive school. (Recent studies connect the trauma response to lower grades, grade retention, and a greater likelihood of special education placement.)

“Trauma disrupts a worldview, a whole sense of safety about the world, and children have to be helped to feel safe emotionally, socially, and academically,” Cole says. Supporting children in their relationships, their self-regulation, and their academics, as well as in their physical and mental health, will help them feel calmer and more competent and become academically successful, she adds. And success at school will go a long way toward helping children reestablish their sense of self.


Training Teachers

In order to work, change has to encompass the entire school, and teachers need to function as a trauma-sensitive team. If that’s not the case, even if a child feels safe in a particular classroom, an interaction in the hallway can retrigger an emotional outburst. “Trauma sensitivity needs to be a regular part of the way the school is run,” Cole says. “Whether the child is in the cafeteria or the playground or the classroom, everyone has to have an understanding of trauma.”

Principal Ryan Powers is on his second “trauma-sensitive school” in Brockton, Massachusetts. His first was Angelo Elementary School. He is now at Mary E. Baker Elementary School, where he’s using the principles that worked at Angelo. There, Powers says, teachers were dealing with a small group of particularly unruly children. One child stood out. “His family was involved with the courts and social services, and he was a train wreck.” At first, Powers says, he was suspended, “but that didn’t get at the root cause of why he was doing those things. He wasn’t doing it to be naughty. He was fleeing the situation.”

The teachers, Powers says, were frustrated. “Kids were acting out. And not ‘I’m going to roll my eyes at you’ acting out. We had kids throwing furniture. When we started to talk about trauma, it came to the forefront that these kids all had [a traumatized] background in common.”

The school began by grounding teachers in knowledge of the neighborhood. “The police and the DA provided the faculty with information regarding drug offenses, domestic violence—our neighborhood was just splattered with these types of situations. Our teachers started to think, ‘If this is what the kids are going through at night, maybe it explains why they’re acting like this during the day.’ We started to talk about some of the things we could do as a school to help them.”

The steps included both general and specific changes, starting with smoothing morning and between-class transitions. “These poor kids are already coming from chaotic home environments. The last thing they need is to be greeted with ‘Hurry up, you’re going to be late, where’s your homework?’” Powers says. So teachers slowed the process down. “I would see teachers go child by child, shaking hands, making eye contact, welcoming them to school,” Powers explains. “One teacher would come out with a fake hand and do high fives with all the kids. They took that and ran with it, and it was so nice to see.”

This approach continued once the children were inside, with morning meetings that included a preview of the day. Teachers were urged to post schedules and prioritize smooth transitions.

The school also focused on making trips to the principal more productive. Children who misbehaved might be sent for an initial meeting with an adjustment counselor to come up with an explanation for their behavior and a plan for fixing it. Or homework would be sent along to the office with them.

In addition, a teaching assistant was assigned to the more difficult children, with the specific goal of keeping them in the classroom. While all 10 of the kids the school had been focusing on had been given at least one suspension in the year before the changes were implemented, the following year, only two were suspended. “We felt like, ‘Okay, first year out we’re batting 80 percent; that’s pretty good,’” Powers says.


Empathy and Challenge

Because interactions with teachers are often flashpoints for kids who have been exposed to trauma, it’s crucial to help teachers understand how this new approach can reduce their own stress and make them more effective. In San Francisco, Joyce Dorado, director and cofounder of HEARTS, which trained teachers at El Dorado Elementary, begins her approach by focusing on teachers. “We start with asking them, ‘How is this affecting you? What can be done to help with your stress level?’” says Dorado, an associate clinical professor of child and adolescent services in the Department of Psychiatry at UCSF–San Francisco General Hospital.

According to Dorado, pockets of initial resistance fade when teachers begin to understand that the new approach can untangle what were previously intractable interactions. “People will come up to me and say, ‘I was completely dreading the training because I just have so much to do, but it was transformative. I’m excited to be thinking about what I can do about it.’”

Like Cole, Dorado feels strongly that being sensitive to trauma in schools should not mean lowering expectations. “When we first started talking about trauma in schools, people said, ‘These poor kids—I just feel so bad for them,’” she says. “Empathy is an important feeling, but then some teachers took that and said, ‘So I’m going to drop my classroom management practice, because I think that’s potentially triggering and I’m not going to expect so much from my kids.’ And that is absolutely not what we’re aiming for.”

Instead, she says, the goal is to find ways to enable kids who have been exposed to trauma to participate in regular school life. “We want to [have] both high expectations and high support, the magic formula for trying to help kids who can be very challenging but have so much promise.”

Christopher Blodgett, director of the Washington State University Child and Family Research Unit and the CLEAR Trauma Center, which trained teachers at Grant Elementary, is optimistic: “We are in a period of truly historic paradigm change about how we think about what childhood is and what our systems should be focusing on.”

For Blodgett, one part of that paradigm involves creating a common language with which children who have experienced trauma and their teachers can resolve confrontations. Part of CLEAR’s approach involves teaching kids and teachers a “hand model” of the brain (borrowed from author and neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel). The model is used for discussions of the “upstairs” and “downstairs” brains, and the paralysis that can happen when complex trauma triggers the brain’s fight, flight, or freeze response, jamming the “upstairs” functions required for learning. “Kids can end up saying, when they act out, ‘Mrs. Jones, I’m really, really sorry. I was in my downstairs brain. I know I shouldn’t have done that. But at the time, I couldn’t make a better choice,’ ” Blodgett explains.

It’s the kind of calming communication that’s now commonplace in the hallways of Grant Elementary. “Regardless if we’re talking to a kindergartner or a fourth grader, we can say, ‘Are you in your upstairs or downstairs brain?’ and they know what that means,” Principal Dahl says.


Image: Media Bakery

Study: Reading Deficiencies Exist Across the Board

Study: Reading Deficiencies Exist Across the Board

Students are behind, but smart strategies help schools close the gap.

By Wayne D’Orio

Students aren’t reading enough, aren’t reading enough nonfiction, and aren’t reading texts that are rigorous enough, according to the latest What Kids Are Reading report from Renaissance Learning. But amid all the clouds is a ray of good news: Schools can definitely find ways erase reading deficits, and the report suggests ways to accomplish this.

One of the more alarming trends discussed is that despite an emphasis on getting students college and career ready, most high school graduates are ill prepared for reading at a college level. The average senior is reading articles at nearly a ninth-grade level, 8.8, while college texts are typically at level 13.8. The same is true for books, where the average senior reads a book at slightly above a fifth-grade level, and summer reading for new college students is typically 7.3. In fact, only nine percent of students in high school have read a book at a ninth-grade level, the report states.

This gap hasn’t significantly closed in the past eight years, says Eric Stickney, the company’s director of educational research. “There’s still a persistent gap that can be as much as five grade levels.” The main difference between the materials is the vocabulary used. Stickney also notes that this gap explains the large numbers of students who enter college needing remediation in both math and reading. To help erase this gap, he concludes, schools should offer more books that include STEM topics.

Students are reading more nonfiction than previously, showing a one percent gain across the board. While this is likely due to the Common Core and other new standards, Stickney points out that this gain isn’t nearly enough to meet the new demands of both college and career. There is also a gender gap here: Girls read fewer nonfiction books and articles than boys.

Some states are doing a markedly better job of increasing the prevalence of nonfiction texts in schools. Florida, where nearly 30 percent of mandated reading is nonfiction, has shown one of the biggest percentage increases. Florida students have increased their nonfiction reading more than 7.5 percent since 2008-09. For comparison, New York state students read about 21 percent nonfiction, a gain of less than 3 percent in the last six years.

So how can school reverse these trends? The report offers a couple of suggestions. Taking the long view, adding 15 minutes of reading to students’ day can pay big benefits over time. For instance, a first grader who reads 15 minutes a day would be on track to encounter 5.7 million words by the 12th grade. Bumping that daily time to 30 minutes boosts the words encountered to 13.7 million.

But if you want to target change that can happen in one school year, a boost can be seen with as little as five extra minutes reading daily. For a fifth grader who starts the year in the bottom quartile of his or her benchmarks, reading 14.3 minutes a day will result in 72 percent comprehension. But raising reading time to 19 minutes per day will boost comprehension to 80 percent and accelerate the student into the top 50 percent of his or her benchmark, the report states.

What Kids Are Reading compiles information created through Renaissance’s Accelerated Reader 360 program. This includes 9.8 million students in more than 31,000 schools and it gathers data from more than 334 million books and articles. Any reading done outside of this program, such as nonfiction articles that aren’t from partners of Renaissance, isn’t included. While the report covers K-12, the vast majority of Renaissance’s customers are K-5. About 70 percent, or 7 million, of the readers the program covers are K-5. Just 450,000 of the students in Accelerated Reader are in grades 9-12.

Finding Success by Collaborating


Finding Success by Collaborating

Learn how four districts in Wisconsin created a school to help at-risk students graduate.
By Stacey Adamczyk

It’s a story you hear far too often: Students feel as though they don’t belong, they get lost in a large high school environment, and they drop out. But what if these students were “found” instead of lost? Wisconsin’s Connects Learning Center (CLC) was designed not only to “find” these students, but to help them flourish, to ensure they become successful.

Our school collaborates with four districts to offer a one-of-a-kind educational opportunity for students in grades 9–12, providing an alternative setting, computer-based curriculum, service learning, and life experience opportunities for students identified as at-risk. We have consistently seen a 90+ percent graduation rate, a number we are proud of and one that we attribute to our approach to learning.

Four Districts, One Common Goal

The reasons students attend CLC are as diverse as the students themselves—to accelerate graduation, to address different learning styles, to experience a sense of community, to follow an individualized learning plan, and many more. Bringing four districts together to provide equal support to a diverse group of students and run a school of 72 young learners is an unusual undertaking.

Prompted by the No Child Left Behind regulations, three of the district administrators recognized the rising need to personalize education for at-risk students. They decided to collaborate in creating an alternative school to serve the at-risk students in four nearby districts. In 2001 at a warehouse in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, one teacher, one aide, and 12 students attended their first day of school at CLC— a true community collaboration.

Today, CLC students come from one of our four partner districts: Franklin, Cudahy, South Milwaukee, and Oak Creek-Franklin Joint School District. A committee, which includes members from each of the districts and CLC’s lead teachers, has established a referral process designed to identify candidates for the collaborative and begin the application process. Students referred for CLC are typically behind their peers academically, have truancy concerns, or are unable to adjust to a traditional school setting.

In the program’s infancy, the goal was to ensure students attained a high school diploma. Since then the focus has evolved from merely helping students earn a diploma to helping them map out their futures. Admittedly, we do things a little differently at CLC. We do not have guidance counselors, principals, or administrators; two teachers and two aides are fully dedicated to supporting the more than 70 students currently enrolled. Our four partners provide assistance through guidance counselors, school psychologists, and support staff while we focus on educating our students holistically.

Treating Each Student Like a Success Waiting to Happen

At CLC, we have adopted the Circle of Courage Model (www.behavioradvisor.com/circleofcourage.html) to create a caring, supportive environment where students can develop and complete a course of study relevant to them, at their own pace. Our staff works tirelessly to ensure we create learning spaces conducive to student-centered and blended learning in combination with direct teacher instruction and small-group activities.

We consider CLC a “home away from home” for our learners. Much like college, our spaces are filled with comfy couches, chairs, and lounge furniture for students to use. To further empower our students, we have adopted a cloud-based curriculum from Odysseyware, allowing our students to find their ideal spot for learning so they can learn at their own pace.

In addition to individual learning spaces, we have areas dedicated to larger group activities designed to foster student belonging, support collaboration toward mastery, and encourage generosity. Our students also build a sense of community by volunteering at organizations offering in-service learning opportunities. We believe that giving back is a life lesson that ordinary curriculum just can’t teach; it has to be experienced. We have found this component to be an integral part of our success in reaching these kids. It gives them the feeling that they matter, that they belong, and that they are a success just waiting to happen.

We operate two three-hour sessions per day. Students spend 80 percent of their time working individually online, following a curriculum that aligns with Wisconsin’s Model Academic Standards. Thanks to the flexibility of Odysseyware, our teachers are able to create and customize online courses and content based on students’ specific needs.

We set our expectations high, knowing students will rise to the occasion. With hard work and motivation, students can graduate as early as their junior year if they reach their respective district’s high school graduation requirements.

We strongly believe in positive reinforcement and recognition. At-risk students—many of whom are classified as such due to cracks in the system rather than any learning or behavioral issues—have a difficult time developing a sense of security where they are. We plant many “seeds” to help them grow academically and socio-emotionally and become productive members of society.

We think that by providing the right approach to learning, addressing students holistically, and using space to create a positive learning environment, we can help our students achieve academic mastery. When students feel successful in academics, other parts of their lives fall into place, allowing all of our students to realize their full potential and become the success they are destined to be.

Stacey Adamczyk is the lead teacher of Connects Learning Center, a four-district consortium alternative high school where she has been educating at-risk youth in southeastern Wisconsin since 2001. For more information about the center or practical strategies for using the “Circle of Courage®” philosophy, you can contact her at s.adamczyk@ocfsd.org.

Photo: Media Bakery

Using Online Courses to Expand Student Choice


Using Online Courses to Expand Student Choice

This Michigan school uses 200 self-created and purchased courses to complement its traditional classes. By Charlie Gragg

Seven years ago, our district, Holly Area Schools in Michigan, began working with online content providers to offer advanced placement courses at our high school to match student interests. Over time, our Internet-based learning community grew to offer more than 200 courses through an online collaborative of schools. Now it has evolved further to include our own internal online teachings. At each stage of its evolution, our program has produced wonderful results in terms of engagement and academic achievement by our students. Partnering with the right course provider allowed us to add efficiency, innovation, and an entrepreneurial spirit to an already outstanding foundation.

In our early days, we worked with five or six different content providers, an approach that meant students worked with different LMS platforms, policies and procedures, grading philosophies, teacher beliefs, and so on. We could have continued in this manner, but we wouldn’t have been able to grow as easily. Eventually we reduced our online learning providers to two, including the Virtual High School (VHS, Inc.) online collaborative. Joining VHS has allowed us to offer the more than 200 courses we currently do.

The collaborative provides three distinct administrative advantages to our school district. First, the additional course offerings allow students to either supplement their field of interest or experiment with new possibilities. It would simply be too expensive to provide a full curriculum of courses for pockets of two to five students interested in, for example, pre-veterinary medicine, nuclear engineering, or AP music theory. Second, the independence of the course work simulates a college environment, a benefit cited by both parents and students. Our juniors and seniors have an opportunity to polish their collaborative, time management, and other skills en route to college. Third, the asynchronous nature of the courses allows infinitely more scheduling flexibility because students can be scheduled for any hour of the day.

The courses also offer time flexibility by offsetting instructional weeks from Wednesday through Tuesday, so as to provide weekend catch-up time. Assignment deadlines are set at midnight, local time, to accommodate time zone differences and adolescent sleep schedules.


How We Create Our Own Online Teachers

We are also doing something unique in our high school. We have about 100 students enrolled in the online electives provided by the collaborative, and another 100 enrolled in internal electives, which are designed, taught, and populated with Holly students and teachers. The collaborative has allowed us to use the Brightspace learning management system from Desire2Learn for our internal courses as well as parts of their curriculum. I say “parts” because we have substantially modified the curriculum to suit our internal needs more directly; VHS calls these modified courses “custom offerings.” Students have scheduled time in a computer lab, and teachers engage with them as needed. Our teachers lead the internal courses on their prep hour, serving small groups of 10–15 students.

Managing an online course calls for intensive professional development since teachers have to master not only the technology involved but also the techniques and practices that will make online learning effective. And as part of the collaborative, we were required to have a portion of our high school faculty train and serve as online instructors. Each instructor must pass a rigorous six-week course that enables him or her to experience every facet of an online curriculum and LMS in the same capacity and at the same pace as their future students will.

I will never forget one colleague in my training class a few summers ago. She figured out how to use her iPad for the first time when she was in Paris, accompanying her band students on a European trip. I share this story with my own online students as an example of being resourceful when your learning community depends on your participation. Additionally, one of my site coordinators recently told me how he used his own learning experience to encourage a student. He said, “I simply shared with him what my experiences were this past summer in the training course. I told him that I scored 50 percent on my first discussion forum because I did not participate enough.”

Now 20 percent of our high school staff (12 of about 60 teachers) teach online courses. Some work with the collaborative, while others teach the internal online courses. Our teachers will universally tell you (and professional research confirms) that teaching online has made them better face-to-face classroom teachers. The reasons vary, but some general observations and comments confirm that the tight curriculum design required of an online course helps teachers learn how to improve their face-to-face curriculum so that it focuses on the central skills and understanding and weeds out unnecessary information and assignments. Additionally, they learned the value of communication and fast feedback on graded assignments.

Whether an online offering is a vendor-provided course or a customized internal course, it includes asynchronous class discussions that require responses to student comments as well as three or four student posts on different days of the week. Discussions are far richer because students have time to reflect and comment after engaging with the lesson resources and readings. The 25-student class limit and the fact that class members are distributed across multiple states—and even countries—also eliminates “hormone syndrome” and “clique syndrome” (that is, reticence due to fear of what a potential boyfriend/ girlfriend or a social group representative in the classroom will think). In short, the dialogue is far richer than we could ever achieve in our classrooms. In addition, there are private forums for those necessary one-on-one discussions with teachers.

Our primary motivation for offering an online learning community is to provide subject material that can help students fine-tune their interests in college majors—subject matter they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Additionally, we want to prepare students for the independence, collaboration, and communication with instructors that college requires, and provide scheduling flexibility for students with critical needs outside of school. The evolution of our online learning community reflects our ongoing commitment to innovative approaches that enhance student learning.

Charlie Gragg is the online coordinator at Holly High School in Holly, Michigan.

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