Ballico-Cressey schools convert to digital learning

dyawger@mercedsunstar.comOctober 14, 2013 

— Toss out the textbooks. The 352 students in the Ballico-Cressey School District are doing all their learning digitally now, and the transition has gone smoothly since it was implemented in mid-August.

“It’s nice to be on the cutting edge,” Superintendent-Principal Bryan Ballenger said. “It’s been worth the effort. We are seeing our kids growing beyond expectations. Students are moving through the system extremely fast.”

The district serving kindergarten through eighth-grade students in northeastern Merced County is using 195 Samsung Chromebooks for its fourth- through eighth-graders, 50 Samsung Galaxy tablets for kindergarteners and 140 netbooks, with few reliability issues reported. The Pearson educational software company is providing the online curriculum and training.

“In California and across America, we have students who have gone through state standards and have been trained to regurgitate information and be able to take multiple choice tests,” Ballenger said. “But that isn’t good enough. Too many students haven’t been taught to think for themselves and solve problems and gather the tools and resources necessary to come up with a plan, attack a problem, to create something and then stand behind it. That’s where we have to go.”

Nobody is having trouble accessing materials and navigating their way through the system, Ballenger said. Students are moving through lessons rapidly, and instruction can be individualized.

With many of the digital products, students are learning while they are playing games.

Rob Baptie teaches a sixth-grade geography class at Ballico School. He said the change to digital learning is going well. For those students who have questions during a video presentation or a lesson, they can look up unfamiliar items using the Google search engine. Some students are very adept using the search feature.

“They have the freedom to explore on their own,” Baptie said.

Kylie Garcia, a sixth-grader, said she likes the computers and the ability to search for information about something she doesn’t know. She is disappointed that in a few instances she has accidentally deleted something she spent considerable time writing and had to start over.

Claire Jones, also a sixth-grader in Baptie’s geography class, thinks computers are really good. She believes she is learning more now than with traditional textbooks.

Joanna Conrado is teaching a third-fourth grade combination class and has taught 17 years, five of them at Ballico School.

“It’s a big change, but it’s going really well,” Conrado said. “It keeps every student engaged and busy. We can program instruction based on students’ needs.”

Conrado said students are working at their comprehension level and are always busy learning. More advanced students who might be bored have enrichment activities.

“My students have learned quickly how to problem-solve,” Conrado said.

Ballenger said it costs about $300,000 to buy traditional textbooks, which have about a six-year cycle before the next edition. The digital curriculum materials will cost $235,000 over a four-year period.

Now the newest material is conveyed with real-time updates. For example, the electronic history textbook already has last November’s presidential election results, Ballenger said.

With Pearson, all instructional materials are aligned with the new common core instructional practices mandated in 2014-2015 by the state. The digital materials are an affordable way to move toward common core, he added.

It’s exciting to see where the digital learning progression will go for students, Ballenger said, and how much farther ahead students will be with the new instructional practices.

With expanded search-research possibilities, students will get different viewpoints on history, such as the events of the Alamo from American and Mexican perspectives, Ballenger said.

Fourth-grader Hailey Ballenger, the superintendent’s niece, said she likes digital learning better than textbooks and enjoys the math games. Classmate Mason Akers said sometimes the material is easy and other times it’s not. He enjoys working on his lessons at home.

Conrado’s class has gone completely paperless, Ballenger said. Some assignments are printed out for students to fill out by hand. Third- through eighth-graders take their electronic devices home. Second-graders may get to take their computers home after Christmas.

Curriculum costs include 44 days of professional development over four years. The district’s 17 teachers spent three full days during the summer mastering digital learning practices. There will be 24 days of training during the current school year, including online demo lessons from Pearson, Ballenger said.

Ballenger acknowledged challenges finding enough time for teacher training and getting teachers comfortable using the digital platform and gaining access to instructional media sites.

Ballenger became superintendent in January 2011; that spring, he started to upgrade the network infrastructure, including wireless access points and increasing bandwidth. These upgrades have enabled the system to avoid time-consuming bottlenecks in downloading information, which were more common problems two decades ago.

“From a student and parent perspective,” Ballenger said, “the kids are rolling to go. Our community sees the possibilities for their children. There is excitement building here, and as this school year unfolds and students learn in a very different, more exciting and more complete way, I believe we will see our community begin to be transformed in the same way as our schools.”

Sun-Star staff writer Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsunstar.com.

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