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Students at Summit Public Schools

WCCUSD considers new technology to improve student performance

on October 9, 2015

Students at Summit K2, a charter middle school in El Cerrito, are testing a new way to learn online, courtesy of Facebook.

Called the Personalized Learning Platform, the Facebook-developed software lets students chart their own path and track their progress through online learning materials. K2 is one of nine charter schools in a Silicon Valley-based network called Summit Public Schools, which worked with the social media company to build the software over the past year.

If the new software succeeds in boosting student performance at K2, West Contra Costa Unified officials said they would consider incorporating it at the district’s public schools.

Facebook has said it would offer the software for free to any school that wants it, and Summit offers free seminars on personalized learning.

By almost any performance measure, WCCUSD is lagging. The district scored poorly on the new, nationwide Common Core standardized examination. Only one-third of WCCUSD students met standards in English and one-quarter in math, compared with 44 and 33 percent, respectively, statewide.

Desperate to close the achievement gap, educators in the Richmond-based district have been turning to technology for help.

WCCUSD just finished installing wireless Internet in all of its school buildings, and is investing $15 million to put a tablet or laptop in the hands of every one of its 29,000 students. Halfway through the four-year plan to buy and distribute the devices, many teachers have already adopted technology in their classrooms—for example, using Google Docs to collect homework assignments and give feedback to students.

Leaders are counting on the investment in technology to boost the district’s test scores.

“We’re in a hurry,” WCCUSD education coordinator Linda Delgado said. “Lives are hanging in the balance.”

Delgado, who oversees the district’s charters, said she is looking at those schools’ innovative technology solutions for ideas that could help the wider district. Delgado said officials were exploring the idea of adopting aspects of the Facebook platform, once all district students have their own devices.

“The fact is, if we can’t make it work for the other kids then it has no business existing,” she said.

Facebook’s involvement with the Summit schools began when its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, toured one of the schools.

Summit was using an early version of the online learning software, which it had developed itself, but it lacked the technological expertise to improve the tool. Zuckerberg dispatched eight Facebook engineers to the schools to help. The team spent a year working with staff and teachers to develop the platform to Summit’s exact specifications.

Zuckerberg gave $120 million to Bay Area schools last year and $100 million to Newark, N.J., schools in 2010. The West Contra Costa partnership marks the first time Facebook has worked with a school to develop educational software.

The resulting tool lets teachers access detailed data on each student’s performance and customize materials to fit individual learning styles—a powerful aid for Summit educators, K2 executive director Kelly Garcia said.

“As a school leader, I can absolutely, in a much more intentional, succinct way, start to catch kids up and measure it,” she said. “I have a better sense of their trajectory for growth.”

Garcia said the software could work well in a large public school classroom setting, where teachers must cater to a range of individual student learning styles and skill levels.

But she attributed the charter’s good results to what she called, “the core of what Summit does.” Garcia said the software can enhance but not replace the quality of teaching and the close relationships students make with peers and instructors.

“To be honest, it hasn’t changed the student experience that much if you look at the big picture,” she said.

WCCUSD Board of Education president Todd Groves agreed, saying technology may change the role of teachers, but will not replace them.

“The teacher will always be there, as far as I’m concerned,” Groves said. But, “technology represents an expansion of opportunity”—for students to learn beyond the classroom.

“Students can choose the learning inputs that are most pertinent to them,” Groves said. “I don’t think most leaders in education have embraced how much agency these young people have through their devices.”

“How do we help them not be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of info and data they have access to? How do we help them find the most effective path to learning?” he added. “That’s going to be the most important task of the educator moving forward.”

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