Poor Grades and Budget Crisis: There's an App for That

Good things come in small packages. That's for sure, especially  for hundreds of kids in one Southern California school district where teachers hand out iPods to students.

Now before you start to think, "you're kidding me, that's not learning,"  think about this: There's proof it's paying off  with a big boost in grades and test scores.  And it's happening despite the budget crunch.

"The state just keeps taking money from us. We suffered pretty massive budget cuts. Class size has increased, field trips cut, five fewer school days next year, " says Kathy Shirley, Director of Technology and Media service at Escondido Union School District. But despite the tough times, the superintendent and the school board decided to make innovative technology their priority.

At some point the economy is going to get better, why should the kids be left behind when it comes to technology says Shirley.

What started out as a pilot program four years ago, now includes 26 classrooms. That's about 1600 personal iPods including 1000 iPod Touches which works out to be one for each child. They originally began with an iPod Nano for voice recording and playback to help the kids improve their reading skills. But since they began purchasing iPod Touches which can load apps they found that the kids' ability to learn really took off.

It costs $12000 to outfit one classroom with iPods, a cart to store them, teacher instruction and microphones. The kids leave the iPods in the classroom before they go home.

Here's the proof that their investment is paying off.  In a test group of fifth-graders who are learning English as a second language and who are classified as "high poverty" students, test scores in reading skills surged during a six-week period between last December and January, Shirley told the North County Times. And several students jumped from far below basic skill levels to above proficiency in some categories, she said.

Their big success story is out now and everyone wants in on it.  Fifty educators a month from Orange, Riverside and throughout Southern California want to come see how it's done so they can implement the same program at their own schools .  The district has even hosted educators from as far as way as New Zealand and Kansas, Chicago and Maine.

The executive director of the George Lucas Education Foundation (GLEF)  visited one of the classrooms recently.  GLEF spreads the word about innovative ideas and provides information about grants.

The project is paying off in cash for more iPods.  The district will be awarded $10,000 from the San Diego County of Education's foundation for its commitment to technology. In addition, the district is applying for a $6 million dollar federal grant, part of  President Obama's  investing in innovation in education effort.

The enthusiasm is bubbling over. Here's some of the feedback from students at Central Elementary School in Escondido as told to the North County Times:

"My favorite app on here is playing Words (vocabulary game on iPod) with friends. You can battle with other people in your class," says 10-year-old Destiny Agundez.

"Not only does it teach you how to write and stuff, but people can see it and say, 'Wow, look at what they can do at school,' "says 9-year-old Lizzie Bohnstedt about her iPod blog.

The iPod has become such an incredible teaching tool that the teachers are sharing it with everyone. They've listed over 100 apps used in the classroom on the district's  website. The apps teach the students everything from vocabulary, to multiplication tables, to blogging, to grammar and beyond. In fact, it eliminates the need for books like dictionaries,thesauri, and even altlases because they can find  all that information on their iPods.

Half the battle is getting the students engaged, says Katie Ragazzi, director of grants and foundation development for the district. And these students are immediately engaged when they're handed their iPods. She says advanced, middle and basic-skilled students find traction with these devices because they're so flexible and adaptable to each student.

And the iPods are cheaper than laptops or computers for every student, says Ragazzi. The result is that the students are "calm, confident and authoritative. They develop media literacy, they can find information and they learn how to be responsible with that information."

And here's another big Wow. Apple of course is just loving this. If you check out  Apple's website, the district's iPod program is featured in it's education section.

The teachers say they're much more engaged with their students and vice versa.  And they say they can't imagine teaching without an iPod in their hand.

As for the budget crisis, maybe one day there will be an app for that.

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