Great Falls Elementary educators learn about technology, teaching at international forum

scetrone@heraldonline.comDecember 26, 2012 

With support from Microsoft and a team of schools from around the world, Great Falls Elementary aims to better customize students' learning.

After meeting and mingling in Prague last month during Microsoft's Global Forum, the group plans to work together to leverage technology tools to more effectively target students' needs and tailor lessons to them.

Principal Wendell Sumter and teacher Stephanie Barber were invited to the forum in the Czech Republic city after Microsoft named Great Falls Elementary one of the most innovative schools in the world.

The software giant announced in October that the Chester County school is among 99 around the globe that stand out for effectively using technology tools to boost student achievement. Those campuses make up this year’s class of Microsoft Innovative Pathfinder and Mentor Schools, only nine of which, including Great Falls, are in the United States.

The company flew representatives from each school to Prague, where they banded together in teams to explore approaches to “21st century teaching,” such as one-to-one computing, project-based learning and game-based learning.

Sumter teamed with 11 other schools, including a mentor school from New Zealand, to focus on customizing lessons and training teachers to effectively use technology tools. Through virtual meetings, the group will continue brainstorming and sharing resources.

They are in the early stages of creating a plan.

“Collaborating is a big benefit,” Sumter said. “I have the ability to say to my colleagues, 'Did you try this at your school?' and 'How did it work?'“

Educators often talk about personalizing learning and “differentiating” lessons to meet students' needs. Many have made progress, using diagnostic tests to pinpoint areas in which students are weak.

But logistic hurdles, like large classes and a crammed curriculum, make it tough to truly tailor lessons.

Great Falls has tried to tackle those challenges and has made headway, but Sumter believes a lot more needs to be done.

“We do a good job of looking at data and dissecting it,” he said. “We need to improve to make sure the personalized learning for these students is actually taking place.”

Great Falls students take several diagnostic tests throughout the year so teachers can gauge who's learning what and at what pace. Sumter meets with teachers weekly to analyze the results and plan. Teachers share groups of students who come to them for specific lessons based on the test data.

Since Sumter became principal three years ago, Great Falls, where 80 percent of students come from low-income homes, has posted remarkable gains.

In science, for example, the share of third-graders who passed the standardized PASS exam more than doubled from 34.5 percent in 2011 to 91.3 percent last school year.

Chester County school officials believe tapping into a global network of educators will help Great Falls build on that momentum.

“It's about finding what's working and using what's working,” Sumter said. “If you want to grow, you have to be able to listen to other people.”

Sumter said he was emboldened by the Global Forum.

While Microsoft demonstrated how educators can apply its new Surface tablet and Bing search engine, Sumter said the focus was on education.

“We were treated like celebrities,” he said. “People were excited about education. I didn't hear anybody complain about budgets, money or kids not being good. Nobody complained about parents not being involved. The conversations centered on how to do what we do better. It was refreshing.”

Shawn Cetrone 803-329-4072

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