(TNS) -- With lagging student test scores and only about 120 students in grades K-4, Spring City Elementary School three years ago looked more like a candidate for closure than for an extreme makeover.
But with the boldness of a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, the Spring-Ford Area School District gambled on a radically different approach to fixing the struggling school near the border of Montgomery and Chester Counties.
It spent roughly $300,000 over three years to arm students and their classrooms - even kindergartners - with the latest desktops, iPads, Apple TVs, and smartboards. And it converted Spring City Elementary into what officials believe was the first public elementary school in the nation totally rooted in "hybrid learning," mixing computer time with individualized learning and small-group instruction.
"You start anything new, you're going to have questions in your mind - Is this going to work?" said Keith Floyd, director of curriculum and instruction.
In fact, in the first year of the experiment, student achievement tanked - but district officials did not panic. Last year, test scores took off like shares of Apple stock - posting a 24 percentage-point jump in math while gaining 20 points in reading and 27 points in science.
Officials from Harrisburg and other districts started flocking to the rechristened Spring City Elementary Hybrid Learning School to see if the "blended" approach is the future of classroom education.
"The staff out there at the time was ready for a change," said Superintendent David Goodin. "When they signed on, I certainly became convinced this was a positive move for us and was going to work."
Located in the Chester County borough, but serving students from both counties, Spring City is a quintessential small-town school: It has one class for each grade, rooms for music and art, gifted instruction, and learning support, a small library, and cafeteria.
On a recent morning in teacher Deborah Eaton's fourth-grade classroom, students worked quietly in small groups.
One sat at a bank of computers reading books and answering vocabulary and comprehension questions, while another used iPads to research their essays on famous people such as Abraham Lincoln and Harry Houdini, and the third worked with the teacher on their opening paragraphs.
Eaton said the small groups and the constant rotation of projects made it easier to work with individual students on their specific issues - a view that was shared by Jenna Saidi, 10, who was writing about former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
"A lot of times it's better when you're in a small group," she said. "You're not as shy about giving your answers if it's wrong."
A few years ago, it looked as if Spring City Elementary would need an escape artist with Houdini's skills. Drawing students from an economically disadvantaged area, Spring City was the only school in the Spring-Ford district that was failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, as measured under the federal No Child Left Behind program.
In looking for a different approach, district officials pondered radical change. "It wasn't about technology, but about our instruction," said Floyd. "We wanted to change the model of 'how we do business.' "
The district had been talking with a local consultant about some form of "hybrid," or "blended," learning that combined the online aspects of cyberschooling with the advantages of having a teacher in a classroom. But prior successful programs were typically in upper grades or focused on one subject such as math, which is considered conducive to computerized learning.
Floyd said it was hard to imagine at first. Then he had an epiphany.
"The epiphany was that basically what we're talking about is guided reading," he explained. "We've done guided reading in the school for years, with students working through stations. What we'd be doing is guided reading in every subject all day long."
John Watson, CEO of the Colorado-based Evergreen Education Group, which studies various models of digital learning throughout the country, called the program "highly unusual."
At Spring City, even the youngest learners spend as much time with technology as they do coloring.
Recently, Monica Johner's kindergartners took turns at the smartboard, tapping out three-letter C words, such as cat. It takes about a month to get them up to speed on the computers, she said, and sometimes they click on the wrong button, mistakenly log out, or decide they would rather play a game than do their work.
Which is why Johner keeps the small centers to 15 to 20 minutes of their 21/2-hour session.
"They need to have the basics before they do the technology piece," she said.
Still, Spring-Ford is so happy with the results of the experiment that it is looking to expand the pilot to another lower-performing school.
And as it eagerly awaits the most recent test scores, Floyd notes that there are other, more personal measures of the program's success.
Eaton, the fourth-grade teacher, told him that after the end of the first year, "I feel I know my students better now than in any other time in my teaching career," he said. "To make a statement like that tells me something very special happened."
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