When 15 pilot Educational Achievement Authority schools in Detroit start classes next month, students from elementary school to ninth grade will each be using their own laptop computers to log on to lessons.
In the EAA, a new, state-run district for schools performing in the bottom 5 percent that will eventually expand to the rest of Michigan, students will have individualized learning programs, all organized around the computer system that includes their lessons, tests and ways to monitor progress. Students will use laptops in the classroom and schools will decide if they are allowed to take them home.
Mary Esselman, Chief Officer of Accountability, Equity and Innovation for the EAA, said that students in older grades will receive individual laptops as well in the future as more funding becomes available. Currently, the system is privately funded with state funding kicking in after the school year begins.
The program, which will also be used in an expanded way for teachers, features an in-class message board, likened to Facebook, to foster communication between students. It's also a way for teachers to send students individualized notes and resources, Esselman demonstrated Friday.
"What makes this different [is it can be used] to leverage any content," she said. "Teachers need one place to access what they need for instruction and assessment."
The program is just as much for teachers, who have been training for several weeks and will have easy tools to track students and respond to their individual needs. It will also help connect those leading classrooms to their peers across the EAA who teach the same level and subject matter. Much of the curriculum has already been designed, though teachers and schools will have the ability to to create their own lessons.
Students will test into levels and will progress after proving mastery of skills and meeting state standards. Classroom groups will be organized both by competency and age.
Esselman highlighted the student-centered education model that lets kids take ownership for their own learning. Some critics have questioned the diminished focus on teachers, who, despite being crucial in the classroom, may be directed to place a larger emphasis on facilitating and monitoring than disseminating knowledge.
Many of the learning experiences and practical activities take place on the computer. The online learning program also serves as a framework for instruction and activities away from the screen.
The EAA's program was developed with the education companies Agilix and School Improvement Network.
The 15 schools in the new district were transferred from the Detroit Public School district earlier this year, and 11,000 students are expected to start in the fall, though parents and other interested parties have expressed concern about the largely unknown system.
For a brief moment this month, the EAA seemed to be at risk. When the DPS Board was recently reinstated after suspension of emergency manager law PA 4 caused Roy Roberts' role to revert to emergency manager, the Board voted to remove the nine elementary/middle and six high schools from the EAA, though their decision was overturned in court.