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Three years from now a classroom at Germantown’s DePaul School should look something like this: a small group of students plug away at math problems at computer stations in one section of the room; in another section a teacher works with a handful of students who are struggling with long division, in still another part of the room a cluster of students are busy working together on a math project.

It’s a far cry from the conventional Catholic elementary school classroom where 30 students sit at their desks with all eyes on the teacher at the blackboard in the front of the room.

And that’s exactly the point.  When school starts on Wednesday, DePaul will be beginning an experiment that combines classroom experience with computers in a new way that, if successful, holds a great deal of promise for Catholic education.

DePaul, a K-to-8 school on Logan Street, was once part of the St. Vincent DePaul parish. Now, it is one of 13 Independence Mission Schools in Philadelphia that serve mostly non-Catholic students in poor neighborhoods. The non-profit is taking over operation of former parish schools, many of which were slated to be closed because of budget problems and declining enrollment. These mission schools were given a second chance by the archdiocese — but they have to stand on their own, without financial help from the parishes where they are located. You can learn more about how mission schools came to be here.

DePaul is the only one involved in this project, which is funded by a $500,000 grant from the Philadelphia School Partnership.  It is called the Phaedrus Initiative by Seton Education Partners, the New York-based non-profit that developed the program.

To start, computers will be placed in kindergarten through second-grade classrooms at DePaul this year, expanded to fifth grade next year and to eighth grade in 2016.  The computers will be used primarily for Math and English courses with 15 per class for K-through-5 and 30 per class for sixth through eighth grades.

“So whether the students are struggling and maybe need more support or middle of the road and need some more coaching and attention or at the top and need more of a challenge we’re finding that students needs are just being met,” said Betsy Rafferty, local manager of the Phaedrus Initiative. “When you sign onto the computer you’re doing the work that was picked out for you because of your strengths and because of your areas that need to be developed.”

Stripped to its basics, what will be happening at DePaul is called “blended learning,” combining individualized and data-driven instruction, mostly through use of computers, with direct lessons from teachers.

“This model makes it possible for teachers to work more efficiently and frees up energy to put into lesson planning, one-on-one time with students and truly differentiated instruction that meets the individual needs of their students,” said  Rafferty. “The result is more energized teachers and happier, more confident students.”

Ideally, this is what should happen if the program is a success: student learning will improve; student achievement will increase; tests scores will go up; as word of its success spreads; enrollment will rise, bringing more money into the school.

Because of the software used, teachers will now get instant data on how each student is doing and take action accordingly.  Because the computers, in effect, will act as teaching aides, classes can be bigger without putting undue burden on the teacher.

DePaul is already a successful school. Enrollment this year is 325, compared to 280 the year before. If Phaedrus is successful enrollment at DePaul can grow by another 215 students, according to one estimate.

“The more students you have obviously the lower your per pupil cost so that enables you to be much more financially stable,” said Sister Cheryl Ann Hillig, principal at DePaul.

Tuition is $4,000 a year, but many families cannot afford to pay the full load and get the financial aid.

“Our standardized tests scores for the last, I’d say, seven years have continued to rise but we know our kids can do better and this one way of approaching that,” said Hillig. “Our success rate in high school has been very good but this will prepare them even better for high school.”

But, Phaedrus is not just about the students. It helps teachers as well. Under Phaedrus, each student can progress at his or her own pace, while giving teachers data, in real time, about their performance.

“This is not replacing teachers with technology, this is making teachers more efficient,” said Jeff Kerscher, director of the Phaedrus Initiative.

“Even the most passionate teacher who’s driven by results, who wants their students targeted for instruction, who wants their students to grow as much as possible, just doesn’t have the time in the day to do what these programs can do,” said Rafferty.

The Phaedrus Initiative developed from two seemingly unrelated trends. The first is that hundreds of urban Catholic schools, most of which provide access to high-quality education to low-income populations, are closing at a rapid rate. Second, technology and more specifically, computer software is becoming cheaper and increasingly improving when it comes to educating students.

“Rather than let the two trends continue on opposite ends,” said Kerscher “Seton decided to bring them both together.”

DePaul will serve as the first east coast Phaedrus site. Seton piloted the Phaedrus Initiative in 2011 at the Mission Dolores Academy in San Francisco, Calif., replicating the model in 2012 at St. Therese Academy in Seattle, WA. This year the initiative will be implemented in St. Anne in Santa Monica, Calif., and DePaul. At St. Therese, whose demographics most closely resemble DePaul’s, the results speak for themselves: every kindergarten-through-second grade class is above the national average for reading and math and every class is now above the national norm for reading.

Nearly 95 percent of the students served by the Phaedrus Initiative are minority, and 67 percent of those students qualify for free and reduced lunches.

You can learn more about the DePaul School in this 2012 article.

 

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