Tuesday, December 16, 2014

One of the nation's poorest school districts leads a discussion about innovation in education

By Melissa Landon
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

BOONEVILLE, Ky. — School administrators and teachers from several Kentucky counties gathered in Owsley County (Wikipedia map), perhaps the nation's poorest, on Monday, Dec. 15, to discuss innovation in education. The school district was recently inducted into the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools. "Poverty means every child in this district has a reason to fail, but that is just not going to happen," said County School Supt. Tim Bobrowski.

Attendees discussed topics such as use of snow days, technology in the classroom, farm-to-table programs and college readiness. The two most important discussions were on efforts to close the achievement gap, and the Snowbound Project — an effort to make up for snow days through online learning instead of through extra school days at the end of the year.

Students have from Dec. 1 to March 1 to complete online work that replaces up to 10 snow days. They earn 0.25 credits for the work. Jennifer Hall, an Owsley County High School science teacher, said students need to be taught how to use the Blackboard program used for the courses, and teachers need to provide free PowerPoint downloads and post PDFs rather than Word documents because some students may not have access to those computer programs.

Adam Holmes, an Owsley High graduate now in college, said the Snowbound Project helped him because he uses Blackboard in college to check grades, keep up with assignments and communicate with professors. Supt. Bobrowski said school officials want students to be innovative and creative, so they must have good Internet access.

Teachers don't just use the online resources for snow-day assignments. Hall said she puts extra assignments and explanations on Blackboard to help students who are having trouble with lessons in the classroom. Jason Hall, a sixth-grade teacher, creates educational videos to help his students learn math concepts. He is also learning how to use Google Docs for his lessons.

Judy Cheatham, vice president of literacy services for Reading is Fundamental, said the key to closing the achievement gap isn't technology, but books. She emphasized the importance of teaching children to love reading while they are still young so that it will become a habit. Also important to remember, she said, is that children of poor and middle-class parents do not hear as many high-level vocabulary words as children of upper-class people hear.

Stacey Davidson, instructional supervisor at the school, talked about the Owsley Summer Reading Project, an initiative designed to prevent students from losing knowledge over the summer and learn to love reading. The program provided 109 middle-school students with eight books each over the summer. Students received books in the mail, with letters for the parents providing discussion questions. A before-and-after test showed that the reading scores of the students who participated in the program declined less than the scores of those who did not.

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