ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Many school districts are reluctantly cutting staff and dropping courses in response to tighter budgets. So, educators are looking for ways to save money and improve instruction at the same time.
In the first of two stories, NPR's Larry Abramson reports that some schools are turning to technology as a way to do more with less.
LARRY ABRAMSON: KIPP Empowerment Academy in south Los Angeles had to make a virtue out of dire necessity. Just as this nationwide network of charter schools was opening up a new kindergarten here, the amount of state money began to dry up. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The correct name is KIPP Empower Academy.]
Principal Mike Kerr says he saw only one way out: raising class size.
Mr. MIKE KERR (Principal, KIPP Empower Academy): We had to cut out one whole classroom. So we went from five classes of 20 to four classes of 28.
ABRAMSON: But how do you do that without eating away at quality instruction?
Ms. ELIZABETH FLOTTMAN (Technology Consultant, KIPP Empower Academy): Okay, so, before we move to reading groups, we're going to play Zoom.
ABRAMSON: The answer, Kerr says, was technology.
Mr. KERR: They have about two minutes on the rug and they're going to rotate out to the computers.
ABRAMSON: Some kindergarteners are wrapping up a small-group vocabulary lesson. They will switch places with kids working on computers in another corner of the room. The computer kids will sit down with their teacher and work on reading.
Ms. FLOTTMAN: She also had a problem with this word. Let's look at this word.
Unidentified Child: Sing.
Ms. FLOTTMAN: Don't shout it out. Do you see any sounds you know?
Unidentified Children: Yeah. Oh.
Ms. FLOTTMAN: Oh. So this word is?
Unidentified Children: Low.
Ms. FLOTTMAN: Good, and also...
ABRAMSON: The idea is to keep the feel of small class without the cost of additional staff. When the kids are on the computers they get help from Elizabeth Flottman. She is the school's technology consultant.
Ms. FLOTTMAN: I can walk out of this classroom and work with the children in the other classroom for five or 10 minutes. And I feel like most of the time I can come back into the classroom and they're all engaged.
ABRAMSON: It is not easy for very young kids to learn how to work independently like this. Teacher M.J. Mathis says KIPP students practice these things in the program's special summer school.
Ms. M.J. MATHIS (Teacher): The biggest challenge for us is teaching them actually how to sit at the computer, how to use the mouse, how to enter their password. But I mean it literally is just another part of the curriculum. We teach them, okay, you stand up; you stand silently behind your chair; this is how we move.
(Soundbite of children playing)
ABRAMSON: In northern California, Rocketship Education has its own flavor of what's become known as Blended Learning - part computer, part classroom instruction. Rocketship has three charters around San Jose. At Mateo Sheedy Elementary, kids rotate through classes the way high schoolers do. They go to the English teacher for English instruction, and they also spend 100 minutes each day here in Rocketship's computer lab.
Kids log in and start work on math or reading lessons appropriate for their grade level. The reading lessons follow the pattern of most digital learning: Kids read stories and are rewarded for the right answers.
Third grader Samantha Hernandez knows how it works.
Ms. SAMANTHA HERNANDEZ (Student): Right here, if you get 100, you get to get a sticker. And if you get like an 80, you are almost there.
ABRAMSON: Are the questions hard?
Ms. HERNANDEZ: Sort of. When you didn't read it good, they are hard.
(Soundbite of music)
ABRAMSON: Music tells kids it's time to leave the computer labs so the next group can come in. With up to 100 kids in the lab at any one time, it gets pretty noisy, especially when lunch is going on in another corner of the room.
Rocketship admits the setup isn't ideal, but strong improvement at all three schools seems to show that something is working here.
John Danner, the founder of Rocketship, says the computer lab is a place to practice fundamentals, exercises that shouldn't be taking up valuable class time.
Mr. JOHN DANNER (Founder, Rocketship Education): So if you can move the basic skills to the learning lab, with tutors and technology, really, there aren't a lot of teachers who would say: Gee, I really miss teaching that basic skill. They'd much rather teach kids how to think.
ABRAMSON: At Rocketship, the computer lab is staffed by volunteers and members of the community. John Danner says that allows them to plough more money into other areas of instruction.
Mr. DANNER: The main things that we reallocated to are higher salaries, 20 percent higher salaries for teachers; academic deans at every school that can work on the professional development of all the teachers at that school; and a three-year leadership development program, to make sure that the people that run our schools are excellent.
ABRAMSON: One of the upsides of having all your students online is that teachers get tons of data, reports on their students' computer work.
Second grade math teacher Bailey Thompson gets regular printouts.
Ms. BAILEY THOMPSON (Teacher): So this student completed 58 problems or 58 lessons in a given week here. And I know from conversations I've had with her in class that she enjoys and is engaged by the software, and that she's moving forward even beyond concepts we've had in class.
ABRAMSON: There's a weak spot in the world of Blended Learning, even enthusiasts will admit that software offerings are weak, especially for young students.
We'll look at an unexpected goldmine in the otherwise boring world of online math in our next story.
Larry Abramson, NPR News.