Microsoft names local school one of world’s most innovative

GREAT FALLS – Microsoft has deemed Great Falls Elementary one of the most innovative schools in the world. The software giant announced Thursday that the Chester County school is among 99 around the globe that stand out for effectively using technology tools to boost student achievement.

The campuses make up this year’s class of Microsoft Innovative Pathfinder and Mentor Schools, only nine of which, including Great Falls, are in the United States.

“We know technology alone does not improve student outcomes,” said Byron Garrett, Microsoft’s U.S. Innovative Schools program director. “But schools with dynamic staff like these are models for why we need to scale more broadly. They show others how to undergo systematic change and increase teacher professional development to make a difference for students.”

The award, which drew hundreds of applications, brings widespread recognition and plugs the school of 425 students into an international network of educators who share ideas, strategies and resources.

Microsoft will fly Great Falls Principal Wendell Sumter and a teacher to Prague, Czech Republic, in November to meet with other Innovative School officials and present their approach at the Partners in Learning Global Forum.

Garrett sees potential for Great Falls to be a model school where Microsoft sends new software and devices to test in the classroom. People often talk about larger, urban school districts, he said, “but the majority of school districts are small and in a variety of states.” Sumter expects the infusion of support to bolster his staff’s efforts and allow them to build on their momentum. “It is an opportunity for us to gain knowledge we would not have gained without this opportunity,” he said. “We’re playing on a larger playing field now. We’ve got to make sure we’re ready for the world and that our students are ready for the world.” Sumter said he believes in technology’s potential to transform the learning experience but approaches it methodically. Teachers undergo training and seek to use devices for specific academic reasons.

After creating math lessons using iPod Touches, fifth-grade teachers tracked their progress over several weeks. Among students who struggled in math, 80 percent improved their scores. “You can have iPads,” Sumter said, “but if the teachers are not trained to use them effectively, how good are they?” Since Sumter took the helm three years ago, the school, where 80 percent of the students come from low-income homes, has seen significant gains in student achievement.

In science, for example, the share of third-graders who passed the standardized PASS exam more than doubled from 34.5 percent in 2011 to 91.3 percent last school year. In 2011, 51.7 percent of third-graders passed the test; in 2012, 83.3 percent passed. Some gains were less dramatic, but marked improvement nonetheless. In English, the share of fifth-grade students passing the annual test jumped from 41.7 percent in 2011 to 48.3 percent.

The school received a B on South Carolina’s federal accountability report card this year, which means Great Falls “exceeds the state’s expectations.” “I think it’s the beginning of a trend,” Sumter said. “It was effective teaching practices that made the difference.” A lot has been happening at Great Falls.

The school is part of Winthrop University’s $13 million Netscope initiative, a partnership among professors, college students and teachers and administrators from 22 schools across several counties. It’s an effort to redefine the way educators are trained by focusing on overcoming challenges that plague struggling public schools and campuses with large numbers of students living in poverty.

Five interns from Winthrop work at Great Falls. Teachers film themselves using a Lucy Panoramic Camera kit. Winthrop students watch the videos as part of their training, Sumter said, and Great Falls teachers review them to reflect on their approaches. Teachers plan to start uploading some of the classroom lessons online so parents and students can see them at home. That’s one of several new strategies the school has in line.

Sumter hopes to get a laptop for every student, so each can personalize education. Chester County schools Superintendent Agnes Slayman and her district administrators dropped by Great Falls on Thursday to celebrate the news with the faculty.

“Just think about what this means for the state,” she said. “This is huge. Who would have thought a small school in Great Falls, South Carolina, would get this opportunity?”