Creating online kindergarten with KIPP Empower, part 2

ByMichael Lemaire

Read the full interview at OnlineSchools.com >

Often times, when we do interviews via e-mail, we get worried. The reason is because people are less likely to give long answers when they have to type it all out instead of giving the answers verbally. With that said, when I first started reviewing this interview, it didn’t take long to realize just how passionate Mike Kerr — the principal of KIPP Empower in Los Angeles– is about the work he is doing.

KIPP is a network of charter schools that started in 1994 with the goal of improving the results of students at public schools, particularly ones in low-income areas of the country. The program has recently been lauded for its blended learning model, which has used technology and a unique education model to have their schools rank amongst the highest-achieving public schools in the country.

KIPP Empower has thus far focused its efforts on kindergartners and first graders, an age group that would seemingly have a tough time grasping the technological aspect of the learning. However these students have been successful, so we got curious, and luckily Kerr was pretty much the perfect interview subject.

His answers were so detailed and in-depth that we were forced to split this interview into two parts. Here is Part 2, in which Kerr talks about whether his teacher’s enjoy the educational model at KIPP and how the school helps young students grasp the technology.

What sort of feedback do you receive from your teachers about how they feel about the program? Did you need to offer your teacher’s special training in order to efficiently work within this model? Do teachers feel like they are being replaced?

Great teachers are key to a successful blended learning school. Overall teachers are very happy with the model we’ve established. They feel that the model allows them the ability to focus on highly impactful small-group, individualized instruction.  Teachers have expressed how liberating it is that they can more adeptly personalize the learning for their students, given the small-group instructional model and the abundance of data that we receive on our students’ progress monitoring.

In terms of technology-specific professional development, we focused a great deal of time on ensuring that all teachers had clearly planned lessons in which all routines and procedures were well thought out. Teachers needed to train students how to transition quietly between teachers and on and off computers.

Just as with any other transition, once the students understood the teacher’s expectations and practiced how to move on and off the computers, these transitions became a seamless part of the school day.

Moreover, our teachers were trained how to use the wide array of student data from the online content providers and from in-class assessments to inform their teaching practice.

Data is being used by tons of online learning institutions to help personalize the learning and it seems like KIPP is no exception. How does your school use the data to help assist your students and help personalize their learning experience?

When KIPP Empower opened, the market of content providers and learning management systems did not yet allow for reliable access to data that could inform classroom instruction. Each content provider had its own way of exporting data, which created significant challenges in making the data available and easy to use for teachers.

While data usability has increased this year, we are continuing to evaluate our options for maximizing this resource for our teachers.  Thus far, our main use of online data has been to identify areas of growth for our students.

Being able to fully trust the data generated from our online content providers has been a source of concern.  Therefore, if an online content provider’s data shows that a student that has mastered a skill or standard, we will further test that standard with our own assessment questions to ensure that it’s accurate. We are using an analytics company Junyo to assist with this process.

How difficult is it to make sure such young students understand and can use the technology. I imagine for low-income students, computers are not as readily accessible so they need to be trained or taught how to use them. Is this a problem you have seen

Roughly 10 percent of entering KIPP Empower kindergarteners had previous access to a computer. Within two weeks, approximately 80 percent of those same students are able to log on and off the computer without any adult assistance.

At KIPP Empower, we have an Instructional Technology Assistant who rotates between classrooms to support students’ individual technology needs. This means that students facing technological challenges are not a distraction from the teachers’ ability to focus on small group instruction and students can take full ability to take full advantage of the online curriculum. This role has proved to be a critical component of our model.

With the success of your school in particular, it seems logical KIPP would want to expand. Are you playing a role in this expansion? Do you know how large they want to make this expansion? What are some of the things that need to happen for the expansion to be successful?

KIPP Empower Academy is a part of KIPP LA Schools, which currently operates five schools in South and East Los Angeles. KIPP LA is in the process of expanding to 14 schools – seven elementary and seven middle schools – over the next several years.

KIPP LA is part of KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), a national network of 109 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia. Nationwide, KIPP enrolls over 33,000 students in underserved communities, and is hoping to expand to serve 59,000 students by 2015. Any new KIPP school must be founded by a leader who has participated in the Fisher Fellowship, a yearlong training program that provides an aspiring school leader with the tools and skills necessary to successfully found a KIPP school.

We have shared our experiences with several new KIPP school leaders and a few have decided to incorporate a blended learning model within their schools.  KIPP Chicago and KIPP NYC are both opening schools that incorporate some aspect of blended learning.

Tough last question, but what do you foresee the future holding for KIPP Empower Academy? Are you still innovating and improving on your model? What are some of the next challenges you want to overcome or next goals you wish to achieve?

We are looking to build out our model through the fourth grade.  This means we will continue to have 15 computers per classroom for the duration of our students’ elementary school experience.  We are looking into how technology can play an expanded role as our students learn to type their writing assignments using Google Docs, conduct research online, and use Edmodo for social networking within their classes.

Since the Common Core assessments are computerized, we feel our students will be well positioned to have an edge due to their enhanced computer proficiency.  We cannot wait to see what our students will be able to do by the time they leave us.

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