Jim Shelton was excited about what he saw at North Forsyth Middle School.
The assistant deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement toured the campus Friday to see how the Forsyth County school system has started implementing its $4.7 million federal Investing in Innovation, or i3, grant.
North Middle and High schools were the trailblazers for the district’s program, EngageME P.L.E.A.S.E., short for Personalized Learning Experiences Accelerate Standards-based Education.
The system was one of 49 nationwide, just 12 of which were public school districts, to receive the grant.
The local initiative is a public/private partnership with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and the University of Georgia.
Shelton said the system was selected because it’s a data-driven district, has strong partners and a unique approach of focusing on individual students.
“It was a really promising sounding model for how you actually teach kids that have different needs and different styles of learning,” he said. “They found a way to integrate information … and then match that to resources that are adapted, so a student has a choice and they can pick the resource that is going to work well for them.”
Bill Weiler with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt said the initiative uses the Pinpoint platform.
The computer program allows teachers to deliver lessons, test and recommend activities based on each student’s results.
If a student misses a certain set of questions, the program can recommend a video, interactive game, worksheet or other tools to help him or her better understand.
Students who obtain a perfect score would be guided to more challenging problems, he said.
“The long-term intent here is the teacher becomes more of a guide on the side,” Weiler said. “Teacher used to be the sage on the stage, someone that was up there teaching to 35 kids the same lesson, whether they needed it or not.
“Tools like this allow teachers to work individually with kids and give them a prescribed instructional plan that is made just for them.”
Shelton observed a classroom of students working on different projects. The same curriculum was being taught using different delivery systems.
After 20 years of teaching, Tamera Holzer said the program has completely changed the way her students retain information.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “”They’re in control of what they’re going to be doing … I’ve been so impressed with how they’re handling it.
“They are loving it. If it gets the kids engaged, they’re going to learn.”
Mike Evans, project coordinator with the system, said the program is in just its second year. He’s looking forward to implementing it systemwide a year before the five-year grant expires.
He said they will add two more high schools and four more middle schools to the program next year. By 2013-14, all schools will be using it.
Once the program goes systemwide, it will be cost neutral, he said. The Pinpoint system will replace three current programs currently being funded.
Shelton said the goal of the grant was to let school systems explore ways of altering and individualizing education that could one day be used nationwide.
There’s still the issue of funding, as well as making what’s effective in Forsyth work in school districts nationwide.
But after seeing how it’s going in Forsyth, he’s encouraged.
“This is going to allow them to move more quickly, or take more time if they need it, and that is one of the biggest challenges, frankly, that we face in education,” he said.
“This is the first time we’re seeing people really create tools that will help a teacher. This is cutting edge stuff.”