ELLSWORTH, Maine — When Kristy Eaton, a 17-year-old senior at Ellsworth High School, needs to figure out where she’s supposed to be during study hall, she taps an app on her iPad and up pops a calendar. The calendar tells her which of her teachers, if any, has requested that she come for extra help during second period. On a recent Wednesday, when she checked the app during first period, she saw her AP chemistry teacher had tagged her.
“AP chem is definitely a struggle,” she said.
Every student and teacher in Ellsworth High School now has this app, which was designed by math teacher Tracy Hollingsworth and English teacher Lydia Kinney. The app helps facilitate a targeted intervention program that started at Ellsworth High School this year.
“It’s no longer OK to leave kids behind,” said dean of instruction Nikki Chan.
Teachers can tag students who they want to see during second period study hall, whether it’s because those students have to make up a test, need extra help or have some missing homework. If teachers want to extend a lesson, they can tag all the students in that class.
Students then use the app to see which teachers have tagged them and where they need to be for study hall, which is called focused learning at Ellsworth High School. Students who don’t get tagged can participate in an extracurricular activity or go to the cafeteria where they are monitored by the principal, Renee Thompson. She also can log into the app to see which students she’s supposed to have on any particular day.
Typically about 80 percent of the students at Ellsworth High School have been tagged, and the other 20 percent are in the cafeteria, Thompson said.
In 2010, Ellsworth High School was one of 10 schools in Maine to become eligible for a federal school improvement grant, which is determined based on achievement and progress students show on standardized tests over a three year period. In order to receive the grant, the school had to hire a new principal and make changes to curriculum and professional development, as well as extend learning time during the school day, according to the Department of Education’s website.
After reading a book about responses to intervention in schools and strategizing with other teachers, Thompson decided to move Ellsworth High School’s study hall from the end of the day to second period. That way, she explained, students couldn’t opt out by leaving early. It also makes intervening with kids who are struggling a priority.
Hollingsworth spent last summer working on a program that could facilitate the intervention. At first, she tried to use Google Docs, but the Web application could not handle the 56 million formulas she needed to input, she said. So she taught herself how to build this app.
“It has been the single most successful effort to catch kids before they fail,” Thompson said.
Thompson insisted that the changes she has made this year would have happened with or without the school improvement status. She said those changes have been well received by teachers and students.
“Being able to have that second period to debrief, go over questions, is very helpful,” said Eaton, a high achiever who, more often than not, asks teachers to tag her for second period.
Ellsworth High School began providing each of its students with an iPad this year as part of Maine’s aggressive technology initiative. Beginning in 2002, the Maine Department of Education equipped all seventh and eighth graders with laptops. Now, the program is expanding into high schools and giving schools the option of getting iPads instead. The Department of Education will pay for all high school teachers’ laptops or iPads and will set up a network in those schools. The districts have to cover the cost of the devices and upkeep — which over half of Maine’s high schools have opted to do, according to Jeff Mao, the learning technology policy director at Maine’s Department of Education.
During second period at Ellsworth High School, there’s something different happening in every classroom. Some classes are full of kids working independently, with a teacher circulating, while in others, a teacher is instructing the whole group. Teachers could be meeting with one student or 20.
In Tristan Bates’s math classroom on a recent Wednesday, there were two students quietly finishing a test, while another group worked together on homework. He said he typically has a mixture of students who’ve asked to be tagged and those who he has tagged himself.
Jessie Falabella had a room full of students designing their own experiments for an AP biology lab on that same day.
“When you give a formative assessment in class and the kids don’t get it, the next day you can target a small group and find out why they didn’t understand,” she said.
“I have chased kids down.”
Each day of the week, there is a subject that takes priority over other subjects. For example, Wednesday is a math day, which means that math teachers trump other teachers when tagging students. Then on Thursday, science teachers get priority.
The app costs about $1,100 a year to maintain, and Ellsworth High School has been able to pay for it using some of the $1.49 million the school received as a school improvement grant in 2011.
Thompson said she thinks the program at Ellsworth High School could be replicated at other schools.
“I think if schools are really interested … they could easily have someone in the school that was tech savvy recreate what we did based on what their own needs are in their school,” she said.
She has been invited to present on the program at the New England Secondary School Consortium conference in March.
Mao, who coordinates Maine’s education technology programs, said that though he did not know much about Ellsworth’s intervention and app project, he’s intrigued.
“Any time a school develops a solution that’s working for them we’d be interested in learning more about it,” he said.