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New London finds success with Teach to One

New London — Picture it: The walk to the principal’s office. Palms wet, throats dry. Ominous. Haunting.

And yet who could have fancied this?

A celebration. In middle of the school day this past week in the principal’s office at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School. Teachers, students and administrators seated at a makeshift video conference table, offering their impressions to a national audience about an innovative, personalized education program that — get this — makes learning math fun.

Indeed, officials at New Classrooms, an independent, nonprofit organization delivering personalized learning to students across the country, could have solicited opinions from thousands of students at 40 different schools that use “Teach To One,” a program that empowers students to learn math and progress at their own pace.

Instead, they chose teachers, administrators and students from Bennie Dover, which has emerged as a national beacon of the Teach To One model.

“The power of personalized learning and the Teach To One math model is on full display at Bennie Dover,” New Classrooms’ co-founder Joel Rose said. “It's a real testament to a determined leader in (Bennie Dover Principal) Dr. (Alison) Burdick, a strong team of teachers and a commitment to the students they serve.”

The evidence suggests the program is thriving. Bennie Dover students are performing 1.68 times better than students nationally on the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) Map Test, a common method of measuring academic progress.

“It almost feels surreal,” said Bennie Dover math coordinator Michelle Combs, who was 2015-16 New London Teacher of the Year. “I’ve been in this building nine years, and there was always such high turnover in the math department. Last year, we began Teach To One, and we had seven teachers in the program. They all came back this year because they believe in it.”

One size doesn’t fit all

Rose and New Classrooms co-founder Chris Rush, both with educational backgrounds within the New York City Department of Education, had become suspicious of the “one size fits all” approach to teaching, mostly because they believe students who are the same age don’t necessarily learn the same things at the same time. But could they create a school-based learning model that integrated the needs of each student?

Eventually, they conceived of a program that linked student interests to alternative methods, which earned accolades from Time Magazine in 2009 for innovation.

Teach To One’s learning foundations are called “modalities,” ranging from traditional teacher-led classroom instruction to small groups where students learn from each other. There are games, practice problems on their laptops with online instructors, books, advanced software and videos. It’s all combined in an open space called the “redesigned classroom.”

The redesigned classroom at Bennie Dover is a lively blend of moving parts, pulsating with energy not normally associated with teaching math. The Teach To One classroom at Bennie Dover — the reconstructed media center — is awash in perpetual teacher and student transitions that fortify the different modalities through happy faces, excited teachers and engaged, comfortable students.

“It’s way more fun than the way it used to be,” Bennie Dover sixth-grader Nasir Lukes said. “The lessons challenge you, but in a fun way.”

Eighth-grader Ashanty Maldonado said, “The rotations we have with different tasks and different ways to learn makes learning easier. Our teachers know exactly who needs to learn what each day. I feel like my school is getting better every day.”

Teach To One requires all students to take diagnostic tests to gauge specific math skills. It creates an “individual playlist” of skills for each student that focuses on specific areas for needed instruction, resulting in a personalized plan. It’s a unique schedule for every student and teacher each day.

Students are then required to answer five multiple-choice questions at the end of each class that assess the skills they learned that day, based on Common Core-aligned state test questions. The answers determine the next day’s lessons for the teacher and student.

“It’s such a massive difference,” Bennie Dover math teacher Alyson Parenteau said. “It meets students’ needs where they are. I had some eighth-graders who were having difficulty doing long division. In this program, they get the time to do it. You hear them say, ‘Now I understand.’ It’s a really big chain reaction.”

Learning from New London

Educators from across Connecticut toured Bennie Dover this past week to acquaint themselves with the program and learn from New London’s lead.

“I was impressed,” said Randy Collins, the former superintendent in Waterford, now working with the District Administration Leadership Institute. “I was impressed with the variety, the working in small groups, the software and mostly how I looked around the room and saw a lot of kids and they were all doing something related to math."

“Good for New London,” Collins said. “I’ve always thought New London was grossly underrated as a school system. They’ve got good people. They just have problems people in the suburbs don’t have to deal with.”

New London Superintendent Manuel Rivera introduced the Teach To One concept to his team at Bennie Dover two years ago. Burdick, Combs and the team went to New York to learn about it.

Was it love at first sight? Eh.

“I was apprehensive at first because it’s so different,” Combs said. “But what we were doing wasn’t getting results. Alison liked it. She pushes everybody in her style of leadership to try new things out of their comfort zone. She’s not a leader who sits on a pedestal and dictates problem solving to teachers and to the school as a whole.”

Burdick spent a day in New York last week speaking to the Teach To One staff, answering questions about its implementation within the Bennie Dover family — a family that has a tighter bond today.

“I like it because it teaches you new ways to solve problems in other classes,” seventh-grader Lynaisha Quinones said.

So, now the band of seven teachers — Parenteau, Tina Torres, Jenna Ross, Ally Holmes, Sara King, Lynn Arrigoni and Bridget Fariel — have a hit on their hands. Who knew associative properties, absolute values, ratios and percentages could be so much fun?


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