New program helps increase test scores
More children near Birney Elementary get to walk to class theses days because more parents are sticking to their local school.
“They were fighting a constant battle of people leaving because of their test scores,” said the former principal of Birney Elementary and current principal of Washington Elementary, Jacqueline O’Sullivan. “Little-by-little they stayed.”
Steadily, both Washington and Birney, two schools that, together, needed to up their scores and foster a more effective learning environment, implemented an innovative program with the backing of a pioneering superintendent and a dedicated staff.
The Fast ForWord program, a neuroscience based learning system with research-based studies and a proven track record was soon added into the curriculum for students in need of an extra piece in the learning puzzle.
“It’s all about fixing it with the right tool,” said O’Sullivan. “The change in test points has a lot to do with the community, parents and teachers coming together. We have a lot of programs, and everything is done with intention. We look at every student and what they need. Fast ForWord is not the only reason why [scores are improving], it’s just one of the pieces.”
In as little as three years, Washington and Birney, along withAdamsMiddle School, have seen results. This year alone, all three saw test-score improvements, with Washington and Birney seeing score changes of 57 and 26- extremely high gains.
“Another piece of the puzzle is that we settle for nothing less than what the kids deserve. We hire the best,” said O’Sullivan. “[Superintendent] Keller only hires 10s. If you want to work inRedondo Beach, you have to meet high expectations.”
Students who are enrolled in the program meet for a half an hour four-to-five-times a week. The time spent working looks like time spent playing on the computer, but according to Fast ForWord teachers, the games they play help open new passageways in the brain and help kids focus better in the classroom and improve their ability to read.
“It’s all about continuality,” said Sue Labate,Washington’s Fast ForWord teacher. “Not jumping from one program to the next. The fidelity to those programs is what helps them. The teachers see it working and they are on board.”
Originally, teachers found it difficult to let some children leave a lesson for a half an hour everyday. But after seeing improvements, most of the teachers encouraged their students to participate, and some even wanted their entire class enrolled. Additionally, teachers were hearing complaints from parents who heard their child had been pulled out of class to play computer games. Teachers addressed this problem by inviting parents to see how the interactive computer program worked, and the teachers started sending information home with kids, including their progress reports. Since then, they have had no complaints.
“I was having trouble with reading,” said Sarah Fabio, 10, fromWashington. “Now I’m better than I was and I’m on level two of Fast ForWord.” Sarah likes to read chapter books like James and the Giant Peach and Harry Potter. “It’s fun to move on to the next level,” Fabio said.
The exercises for the program are done on a computer with headphones in a room lined with blinking computers and mumbling students as they click away at different images on the screen. Students feel like they are playing computer games, but they are actually targeting specific areas of the brain to strengthen and improve them. The games control the functioning and working memory and other important skills such as processing and sequencing so when the student is sitting in the classroom, they are better able to remember what the teacher says from one class to the next. For many students memory areas in the brain are weak and the exercises target the memory to strengthen it by requiring the brain to remember things on the screen. The program also focuses on strengthening the ability of the child to pay attention, and also deals with word sequencing.
“When we strengthen those areas in the kids, the teachers jump for joy,” said Sherrelle Walker, Chief Education Officer at the Scientific Learning Corporation. “The child has that capacity all along, but what happens in the brain is that areas aren’t stimulated enough and don’t develop. Teachers are teaching well, and now students have a brain that is really tuned and wired accurately so it can learn from the teacher the content they have access to. It’s unbeatable for kids to be successful.”
Fast ForWord has been implemented in about 6,000 school districts across the country. It is used with all kinds of students including special education students, Title One students and those struggling with language, along with gifted students, to help them speed up their ability to process information. “It gives them the ability to process faster and learn at a higher level than they are right now,” saidWalker. “Few companies in the world have research that is as strong because our program came from neuro-scientists. Our research was replicated at Harvard, MIT and Stanford. We have exceptional potential as far as the credibility as to what we do [is concerned].”
Fast ForWord is a different program and is unique in schools because it is based on the science of how the brain learns. The program at Washington, Birney and Adams was partially funded by the district and Title One money. “Teachers didn’t have to change anything they were doing,” said O’Sullivan. “They just had to give up their students for 30 minutes.” According to O’Sullivan, they didn’t get any push-back at all from anybody.
“Fast ForWord is difficult to gauge,” said Mary Ann King, the Fast ForWord program coordinator at Birney. “It doesn’t teach you to read, it helps to accelerate learning by teaching the brain how to process more efficiently. We have seen some dramatic turnarounds with non-native learners”
From the beginning, the teachers kept close tabs on their students’ progress and worked one-on-one with them to help them with difficulties, including reading. When they first used the program to help target students that had difficulty reading, because of the large numbers of students in need of assistance, they were only able to help below- basic kids. “Now we hardly even have any below basic,” King said.
Washingtonhas higher-than-average enrollment of non-English speakers. For the teachers at the school, Fast ForWord ended up being a fantastic tool to help those children learn their new language. One of the ways Fast ForWord helps students is to focus on vocabulary and sounds. One student enrolled in the program had a high rate of success not only because of the hours spent on the computer, but because his parents were dedicated to helping him with vocabulary flash cards associated with the computer tasks outside of the classroom as well.
“The increase in test points has a lot to do with the teachers and community coming together,” said O’Sullivan. “We have a lot of programs, and everything is done with intention. For me it has to do with the people. When you have the right people in the right places you can go far.”