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Seeing How High Tech Works with High Touch

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April 18, 2011 08:34 pm

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I went to observe a learning technology platform in Orlando, but soon was caught up in the importance of blending high tech with high touch.

I had asked Cheryl Vedoe, the CEO of Apex Learning, to point me to one of the high schools where her company is involved. I ended up at a LifeSkills of Orange County in a section of Orlando that the Magic Kingdom has not reached. The campus is in a gritty shopping center where one story chiropractors and dentist offices have largely replaced retail stores.

This is a school for students that the traditional public schools could not reach. Many had dropped out or were failing when they reached LifeSkills. One tattooed young man told me “I am a thug; well, I was a thug.” Another young woman talked about how she has boosted her GPA from failing to exceeding a 3.0. She will graduate in June and then enroll at the local community college. A petite Haitian immigrant who had fled devastation of the recent hurricane spoke confidently about entering a career in medicine. A 22 year old proudly explains he is now ready to enter the military.

The students credited the Apex learning system and its adaptive capability. “I am a visual learner,” one student matter-of-factly explained, “Apex permitted me to move at my own pace.”

The school advances students essentially based upon demonstrated competency. Many of these students hold jobs and require a flexible schedule; the school’s design and technology meets the need. For example, one student comes at 9 am and leaves after lunch for a construction job building a traditional high school where he probably would not adapt.

A walking tour of the school displays the visible signs of active technology application. No traditional school desks; only long tables with individual flat screens and students and teachers huddled together. This is where the importance of high touch becomes so evident − the students recognize the contribution of the technology, and are equally effusive about the personal involvement of their teachers. Each credits at least one teacher with extensive efforts and encouragement for them to advance. They note that the traditional school structure simply did not permit the time or flexibility for this personal attention.

I am listening to a vital example of “blended learning” where effective application of technology is joined by committed and effective teachers.

I am seeing firsthand many of The 10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning created by the national Digital Learning Council that Governor Jeb Bush and I co-chaired last year

Not every student will earn the treasured high school degree. They will have to pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). Some will not be able to overcome the social and academic obstacles that pushed them out of school previously. But every student that graduates June 15 from this school is one more that will be much more likely to contribute to themselves, to Florida, and to our national economy.

Some additional notes: LifeSkills is a public charter school operated by White Hat Management, a private company that contracts and assists non-profit corporations that hold charters or see a need for a charter school in their community. Most of the teachers and the principal had taught in the public school system. The school operates on the allocation authorized by the state of Florida. All students have the same graduation requirements as public school students. Every student receives an individual academic and career plan, which serves as his/her academic and life skills guide. Upon graduation, the student earns an actual state-recognized high school diploma – NOT A GED – and valuable job experience.

Another factor for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) accountability discussions is that this school, under No Child Left Behind, will never make Annual Yearly Progress (AYP), the measurement used to determine how a public school is performing academically according to standardized tests. By taking the dropouts and lowest-performing students as its target population, the school is almost guaranteed to fall short of AYP.

But for a former thug— and a large number of one-time dropouts— the combination of flexibility in time, competency- based advancement, effective application of learning technology, and committed teachers is moving them from being just another statistic of failure to the possibility of real success.

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