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Laptops are providing new instructional tool for Shelby County students in ‘blended learning’ pilot

Students at Sherwood Middle School use laptop computers as part of a three-year pilot program in Shelby County Schools.
Students at Sherwood Middle School use laptop computers as part of a three-year pilot program in Shelby County Schools.

Less than two weeks before taking their state standardized tests, sixth-graders at Sherwood Middle School in Memphis can rattle off exactly where they fall behind and what computer programs will help them catch up.

Each of Sherwood’s students are equipped with laptop computers as part of a “blended learning” program that allows teachers to pair lesson plans with online tests and assignments tailored specifically for each student.

The three-year pilot program launched last September in 18 Shelby County schools, including eight within the district’s Innovation Zone (iZone). Superintendent Dorsey Hopson hopes the blended learning program will result in test score gains of 10 percent for participating students.

While the district used money in its general fund to launch the ambitious initiative, the program received a significant shot in the arm this year with a $2.6 million grant from the Plough Foundation. The Plough grant will help cover the cost for nearly 5,300 laptops, as well as curriculum, for the next two years at eight iZone schools.

Foundation representatives and district administrators visited Sherwood this week to look at their investment. “We’ve been really impressed with the gains the iZone has made. They’ve hired a great team of people to turn these schools around,” said Mike Carpenter, executive director of the Memphis-based foundation.

The iZone is a set of low-performing schools given special flexibilities from the state to improve test scores.

Blended learning offers a mix of teacher-guided and self-paced computer instruction for students using various curriculum software.

Plough Foundation representatives meet with administrators of Shelby County Schools during a school tour.
Plough Foundation representatives meet with administrators of Shelby County Schools during a school tour.

“This program motivates our students to do better. It allows us to see where students are and it gives quick wins to students,” said Sharon Griffin, assistant superintendent over the iZone.

Test scores generally have improved in schools within the iZone – which provides teacher bonuses, extra hours in the school day, and frequent interventions – but the model is expensive and financially unsustainable. Most schools are largely dependent on federal grants, some of which will run out at the end of this school year.

The Plough grant gives the blended learning program sustainability throughout the pilot. District leaders facing significant budget cuts have sought philanthropic support from local and national organizations but must compete with a growing charter sector and other nonprofit organizations.

The Plough Foundation, named after the late Memphis businessman and philanthropist Abe Plough, supports programs that contribute to the welfare of the Memphis community. Among its education initiatives, the organization has helped to fund the district’s teacher effectiveness program and school health clinics.

Contact Daarel Burnette II at dburnette@chalkbeat.org or (901) 260-3705.

Follow us on Twitter: @Daarel, @chalkbeattn.

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