Piedmont schools receive grant to redesign middle school learning
by Laura Gaddy
lbjohnson@annistonstar.com
Jul 22, 2013 | 3066 views |  0 comments | 86 86 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Two Piedmont schools administrators last week were in San Francisco for a three-day conference to help them begin to spend a $100,000 grant to shake up the sixth grade this fall.

Curriculum coordinator Rachel Smith and Piedmont Middle School Principal Jerry Snow met representatives from 29 other school systems across the nation, all of which are receiving $100,000 grants announced this week to develop new learning models. In Piedmont, school officials plan to use the money to personalize learning for sixth-grade students, but administrators are still trying to decide exactly how they’ll spend it.

“We just know that we received the grant,” Smith said “We’re just in the very beginning stages.”

Smith said the system may use the money to pay consultants, to buy software, to pay for training for teachers or to do myriad other things. Piedmont administrators plan to expand the program later to more grades.

The grants are funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through Next Generation Learning Challenges, an organization that encourages the use of technology to personalize education and prepare students for colleges and careers.

In Piedmont, administrators will use the grant money to develop a system to teach through technology so students can learn at their own pace, Piedmont schools Superintendent Matt Akin said.

“The grant is a unique opportunity because it’s a planning grant,” Akin said. “It gives us the upcoming school year to plan how to implement personalized learning.”

While the system doesn’t yet know how it will spend the money, sixth-graders will notice some changes upon returning to class next month.

At the beginning of the fall semester teachers will combine math and science instruction in the same class, and also fuse lessons on history and language arts. The fused subjects will be taught in one big space, such as a library, with more than one teacher on hand, Smith said.

The teachers will use students’ school-issued laptop computers to determine which standards each student has mastered. Students will also use their computers to learn at their own pace, administrators said.

Individualized learning is also part of the system’s goal to eliminate digital and geographical divides for students, Smith said. The district began taking steps toward that goal in 2010, when it issued the laptops to each student in grades 4 through 12.

“There are tons of opportunities out there for students through the window of the computer,” Smith said. “The next step is creating a personalized learning environment for each student”

Students will still be expected to meet academic requirements set by the Alabama College and Career Ready Standards, but they’ll have more flexibility in how they do that under the new model. Students will pick which subjects and concepts to focus on, Smith said. Once they’ve mastered a concept students can move on even if their classmates are still working on it. Administrators said it will also give students more time to grasp concepts they struggle with, even if most of their classmates have moved on.

“This is not going to be traditional seven-period classes,” Smith said.

In December, the school system will apply for another grant of up to $400,000 from Next Generation to expand the program to more grades.

Staff writer Laura Gaddy: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.

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