In The News


March 3, 2013

The Tech Transition: Southwest Parke students increasingly learning through digital tools

Sue Loughlin The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Reading comprehension has improved in grades 3-9, and instruction can be tailored to meet the specific needs of each student.


Tribune-Star/Joseph C. Garza Understanding the world: Fifth-grader Abigail Phillips, 10, reads about honeybees on her laptop in Rachel Loomis’ fifth-grade class Wednesday at Rosedale Elementary School.

Those are some of the benefits Southwest Parke Community School Corp. has seen in the first year of its transition to a digital curriculum. In August, the district distributed netbook computers to all students in grades 2-12.

Increasingly, students are learning through digital tools, rather than through traditional textbooks.

The transition “is about where I would expect it to be for the point we are at,” said Rachel Porter, the district’s digital curriculum integration specialist. The changes involve a 21⁄2 year transition.

The goal is to be non-reliant on printed textbooks by the start of the 2014-15 school year.

Every teacher incorporates use of the netbooks to some extent, she said. Some are “fully transitioned,” although they still might use books, pencils and paper when that’s the best thing to do, Porter said.

Other teachers might use the netbooks for one small portion of a class period.

“We’re not trying to create online classes here. For any given activity, we want to use the best tool,” she said.

Even when the transition is complete, teachers will still use books, paper and pencils when appropriate, Porter said.

Among the benefits of using netbooks has been a significant improvement in reading comprehension scores among students in third through ninth grades. The district uses a reading program, Achieve 3000, that continuously monitors students’ reading comprehension with something called a Lexile measure, a scale for measuring text difficulty and student reading ability.

On average, students gain 54 Lexile points in a typical school year through traditional methods. “Our students have gained an average of 113 points already this year through using the digital tools we’re providing,” Porter said.

The reason, she said, is because each student is getting exactly what he or she needs in terms of instruction. Rather than “teaching to the middle,” each student does learning activities on the netbook based on where that student is in the learning process.

Learning as they go

Kyle Kersey, assistant principal at Riverton-Parke Junior-Senior High School, said that at this point, use of netbooks and digital curriculum “is still a transition … It’s an ongoing process.”

But he’s impressed with the number of teachers “who have jumped into it” without it being mandated. “We weren’t 100 percent prepared for as many teachers to jump on board as fast as they did and be able to manage it or deal with some of the issues that popped up. That’s a great thing,” he said.

As he visits teacher classrooms during evaluations, “I see some outstanding things taking place that have never taken place before because we didn’t have devices available,” he said.

In fact, students have been using their netbooks so much, the devices may run out of battery power by midday and have to be recharged. “We put in additional charging stations,” Kersey said.

Sometimes, students forget to bring their netbooks to school with them, or they forget to charge them at home.

The technology department “has had to change priorities to always put students first and what is best for students,” he said.

According to Porter, all English-language arts teachers in grades 3-12 use Achieve 3000, while math teachers use a similar program “that gives kids what they need at their level.”

High school students learning a foreign language use a program called Duolingo, in which they can both write the language and — using some other tools — record themselves speaking the language.

A chemistry teacher is having students do lab reports using Google Docs, which allows multiple students to work on the same document at the same time, from their different computers.

It tracks who typed what “so the teacher will know everyone contributed to the lab report and not just one person did all the work, which is typical in group work,” Porter said. A business teacher also uses Google Docs.

“Student accountability, in general, is way up because of the technology we’re using,” Porter said.


the technology

At Rosedale Elementary one day  last week, students used their netbooks for various learning activities.


Tribune-Star/Joseph C. Garza Up for discussion: Rosedale Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Rachel Loomis discusses a story with student Mason Harney that he and his fellow students are reading on their laptop computers Wednesday at the school.

In Rachel Loomis’ fifth-grade class, Jaycee McClain had finished her reading assignment and was using a game to learn about the 50 United States. “You have to drag the states to the right part on the map,” she explained.

McClain believes that by using netbooks, “It won’t be as hard to teach kids and it might help them understand more on these websites.”

Fifth-grader Andrew Kneeland described the netbooks as “cool” although “sometimes they are a little slow,” he said. “There’s a lot of good learning sites,” and he likes the educational games.

Students use the netbooks for part of each day, but not all the time, Loomis said. Each day, they’ll spend about 30 minutes working on reading comprehension using the netbooks. About once a week, they might use Aleks, a Web-based program, for math.

Students use the computers to do research and write a report, or they can play educational games if they’ve completed an assignment.

Among the benefits of the netbook, Loomis said, are that certain students “are very much interested in using the technology … and do things for us that maybe they wouldn’t have done on pencil and paper.”

Overall, “It’s been a learning year,” she said. “We’ve come across some bumps,” but nothing insurmountable.

Asked if it’s a good change, Loomis said, “I think for the future that these kids are moving into with all this technology … yes, I think it is, if it’s used the way it’s supposed to be.”

In Anna Virostko’s classroom, second-graders used their netbooks in the morning to work on sentences (punctuation and capitalization) and math facts.

They also read a story each week and take a spelling quiz on Thursday; there are different activities to learn spelling, including electronic “flashcards.”

Students also like to write stories on their netbooks, Virostko said.

She spent the summer working with Porter to develop curriculum for her class and “she’s been continuously working on it,” Porter said.

“They love the math programs,” Virostko said. When they master so many problems, they earn an online “badge” and progress to the next lesson.

Second-grader Derron Hazzard used a timed program to work on his subtraction math facts. The first time, it took him 1 minute and 34 seconds, and the second time, 1 minute and 4 seconds.

“He just kept plugging away,” Virostko said. “They love the competition part of it. That is their favorite part.”

One of the challenges, she said, is learning all the teaching materials that are available.

Sometimes, they face minor technology “glitches” they have to figure out.

“Kids need to have troubleshooting skills with technology,” Porter said. “It’s frustrating sometimes, but it’s also part of the learning process.”

More serious problems go to tech support staff, including Porter, Jill Wiram (director of instructional technology) or Ben Porter (network and systems manager) and the Student Support Center Staff at the high school.

Other growing pains included some initial bandwidth issues, as well as insufficient netbooks for a higher-than-expected enrollment. Both problems have been addressed, Porter said.

Paige Yando, Riverton-Parke senior, believes it’s easier to get school work done on the netbooks.

While the devices tend to lose battery power quickly, they also charge up quickly, she said.

Marissa Bovair, a ninth-grade student, said the netbooks are used a lot in her English class. For gym class, students might use the device to take a test.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or

Achieve 3000

Taking the Plunge

 At Southwest Parke we are using a huge number of digital resources that are changing the way we do school.  It is incredible how much quality content is available that’s free for education.  However, there are a few areas that are worth some investment.  Achieve 3000 is a differentiated reading program we have purchased, focusing on comprehension of informational text.  After conducting an initial assessment, Achieve delivers news articles supplied by The Associated Press to each student at their unique reading level.   Students answer opinion polls, complete comprehension questions based on the article, and write responses to critical thinking questions.  In doing so, they see exponential growth in their reading comprehension skills, and teachers receive continuous data to guide their instruction.

You can discover a lot about exactly how the program works on their website, but I’ve put together a short video so you can hear directly from a couple of our students and see some of our actual results.  There is no doubt that adding more digital content and greater differentiation into our curriculum is benefiting student learning.

Why We Made The Investment

Although we have made lots of progress in recent years, our students were still not showing the growth and success we wanted them to have (you may be able to relate).   We know that differentiating learning produces results because it provides each student with exactly what they need.  It doesn’t take a genius to understand that concept, it just was so very difficult without the technology tools in place.  Our first experience was with ALEKS to provide differentiated learning in math.  We saw what a huge difference it made and sought something to provide the same benefits in reading comprehension, recognizing that there is no skill more fundamental to success.  A student who doesn’t understand the non-fiction text they read will struggle in all academic areas.  Achieve 3000 seemed to be the perfect solution at the perfect time, as we were also implementing 1:1 and digital curriculum initiatives.  We began using Achieve in grades 3-9.  When we saw such rapid results and realized that our freshmen needed more time to close the achievement gap, we expanded to provide Achieve for grades 10-12 as well.

The Early Harvest

As shown in the video, we have seen a very quick return on our investment with increased student Lexiles, but there have been other positive outcomes.  We’ve seen students come alive that had no interest in school or the quality of their work before.  The immediate feedback they receive, the fact that the content is on their personal level, and the motivating elements are appealing to both non-traditional and typical students.  Here’s a story that didn’t make the video…. I met with a junior who is using Achieve to help him pass the ECA test.  Although he is quite intelligent, he is a student who makes it known how much he loathes school, and his lack of success shows his attitude toward education.  I asked him how he felt about Achieve, expecting the same sort of answer I had always heard from him.  Instead, he paused and quietly said, “I don’t hate it.”  If you know students like this, that’s saying a lot.  We have students who would never complete homework assignments that are now getting on and completing several Achieve articles per week from home.  The high achievers are benefiting as well because the program puts no limits on how much they can advance.

Keys to Success

Teachers – As with any resource, you get out of this program what you put into it.  Although powerful enough to produce some results even on “auto pilot”, the real success comes when teachers interweave their reading, writing and language arts instruction into their use of Achieve 3000 articles.  It is also a very effective means of providing complex informational text in science, social studies, health and other content areas.

Students –  Students have to learn to take some responsibility for their own learning.  This is one of the added benefits, teaching them to be more independent learners.  A student who skims the articles and clicks through questions isn’t going to grow.  The program does have some things built in to catch this sort of behavior, but a high level of accountability for quality of work goes a long way.  I think it also helps if the students learn exactly why their reading skills are so crucial to their success later in life and know some specific things to do (and what NOT to do) when they are using the program.  To that end I created a Student Guide to Achieve 3000, which has been presented in most classes.

Administration – Monitor data.  I can’t emphasize that enough.  Achieve provides an enormous amount of customizable reports that paint a good picture of progress or the lack thereof.  If students aren’t growing, drilling into the data often reveals the reason, which can then be corrected.  You won’t be successful with a weight loss program unless you monitor your food and exercise.  You won’t stay on budget unless you track your spending.  Students won’t grow to their fullest potential with any learning program unless you use data to guide instruction and implementation.

Ready to Transform Learning Through Differentiation!?! 

Watch the promo video below and visit Achieve’s website to learn more about how the program works and the research behind it.  Contact me if you have questions you’d like to ask a real school instead of a company or if you’d like to visit us to see it in action!  If you’d like to schedule a presentation, contact Diane Baldessari  (pssst…. she’ll probably bring snacks!).

Introduction to NROC

NROC (National Repository of Online Courses) is a growing library of high-quality online course content for students and faculty in higher education, high school and Advanced Placement – focused mostly on math, science and social studies subjects.  This bundle will introduce you to the types of learning  objects available in My Big Campus.