LOS ANGELES — First-grader Lena Barrett logged on to a laptop and clicked through a series of icons under the fluorescent lights of her classroom. A cartoon game-show announcer appeared.
"It's time to show what you know by finding words," the announcer said. "In this game, you will click on words that mean the same thing as the word the narrator says. Click on the word that means the same thing as 'marvelous.' "
Six-year-old Lena, dressed in her school's burgundy-plaid uniform, clicked on "wonderful," and the announcer quickly moved on to the next word. A few moments later, she hesitated over "fragile," before finally clicking on "breakable."
Computer instruction at the earliest grade levels can be controversial, and it's rarely used every day to substitute for traditional teacher instruction of the littlest learners. Still, a growing number of schools are embracing technology-infused approaches to teaching young students, which proponents say can allow children to move at their own paces and help educators manage larger classes as school budgets are being slashed nationwide.
Lena's KIPP Empower Academy — which stands for Knowledge Is Power Program — opened last year to serve minority and low-income students in a tough south Los Angeles neighborhood. Its kindergartners participated in an experiment last year with "blended learning," in which students learn from computers as well as teachers. Results from the trial year were so promising that school administrators decided to continue using computers in kindergarten classrooms this year.
KIPP officials expect computer use to expand throughout their network of 109 charter schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia. Rocketship Education, another national network of charter schools, is putting its kindergarteners in front of computers as well, and some schools and districts in California, Arizona, Virginia and elsewhere are experimenting with computer-based learning in the elementary grades.
"The early indications are that this is replicable in future kindergarten classrooms and, as we grow, into higher grades," said Richard Barth, the chief executive of the KIPP Foundation. The foundation promotes a model of education that features extended school days, a longer school year and frequent standardized tests to measure student progress.
At KIPP Empower, Principal Mike Kerr devised a complex schoolwide rotation in which children spend roughly a half-hour on laptops in their classrooms twice a day. He said the computers allowed him to retain the small-group instruction that he considers crucial to student success. Students who started the year behind their peers graduated from kindergarten on track, he said.
At the end of the year, more than half of Kerr's students scored in the nation's top 25 percent in math and reading.
With just one year of data, however, it remains to be seen whether computers can improve long-term student outcomes, especially at the early elementary-school level.
In addition, some education experts are wary of putting kindergarteners in front of computers.
"Parents, teachers and educators are right to be concerned about time at the computer if it replaces essential learning experiences and activities," said Chip Donohue, the director of distance learning at the Erikson Institute in Chicago, a graduate school of education that specializes in early childhood development.
Five-year-olds need "active, hands-on, engaging and empowering" activities, "not electronic work sheets and drill and practice," Donohue said.
On a recent visit to KIPP Empower, it wasn't clear that computers — or the educational games that the children play — were doing much teaching. Instead, Kerr said the computers provided a way to reduce his average class size of 28 students. By having half work on laptops in the classroom, a teacher can work more intensely with the other students, he said.
But the computers are more than just high-tech baby sitters, advocates say. Animated games drill students in phonics and arithmetic, and the programs flag topics in which a student struggles.
Each day, KIPP's technology instructional assistant, Elisabeth Flottman, collects computer data on each student and gives the information to teachers.
The software can report, for example, if a student has been struggling with beginning sounds, ending sounds or blending sounds. This can help the teacher zero in on individual student needs. It also reports if a student sat idly at the computer for an extended period.
"If I know that, I can pay a little more attention," said Flottman, who circulates among the four kindergarten classrooms and helps students with computer crashes, headphone snags and log-on issues.
In fall 2009, just a year before KIPP Empower was slated to open, Kerr learned that the state of California would be cutting $200,000 in funding for the school, a substantial chunk of its budget. At first, Kerr wasn't even sure he'd open the school on schedule because he was worried it wouldn't be "educationally sound."
Then a private foundation that was lobbying schools to increase their use of technology happened to call Kerr and ultimately provided a $200,000 grant. (The foundation, which wishes to remain anonymous, is among the organizations that fund the Hechinger Report. For a full listing of the Hechinger Report's supporters see Hechinger funders .)
The grant allowed Kerr to rethink the school's design. Instead of five classrooms of 20 students, he'd now have four classrooms of 28. He decided to hire one fewer lead teacher and take in more students.
Kerr decided against a computer lab because he wanted kindergarteners to feel as if they were in a warm environment, not sitting among rows of computers.
"I do worry about students one day sitting in front of computer screens all day," he said. "That's not what we're about."
It's impossible to tell how the students would have fared without computers. Kerr had the luxury of handpicking and training his cadre of teachers, and other schools might not have been able to achieve similar results.
"This technology in the hands of an entirely different group of adults may not produce near the results that Mike and his team produced," said Barth, the foundation head. "There is a good chance it wouldn't."
He added that it would be naive to think that "5-year-olds are just going to walk in a computer lab and be inspired and all of a sudden make these great gains."
The kids, for their part, said they liked computer time. One recent afternoon, after dismissal in the schoolyard, 5-year-old Joselynn Meza offered her own assessment of the experiment: "It was fun," she said. "My favorite computer program was the games."
(This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.)
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