A few months ago, 13-year-old ninth-grader Giovanni Munnerlyn was in a public middle school in Tampa, Fla., being shuffled from one math class to another. He felt like giving up on the subject. His mom felt helpless. But last night, he and Mom (shown here) sat side by side in the computer lab at his new school, Gateway Christian Academy, taking on numbers that used to be his nemesis.
On the screen in front of him, math problems adding fractions were being served up by Khan Academy, the California-based phenomenon that is turning heads with its educational videos.
“Find the common denominator,” Giovanni said softly to himself before typing in an answer. The Khan Academy’s response: Smiley face. Giovanni squeezed his hand into a victory fist.
This little moment in a little school reflects a bigger project helping kids like Giovanni.
The new school year marks the beginning of a partnership between Khan Academy, which has drawn flattering coverage from “60 Minutes” and The New York Times, and Step Up For Students, the Florida nonprofit that administered 40,000 scholarships last year to low-income students. If I could narrate this story like Sal Khan narrates one of his videos, I’d say in his calming, authoritative voice, “Cutting-edge technology … plus school choice … equals more opportunity for low-income kids.” I’d use one of Khan’s colored pens to underline the word “opportunity.”
The venture is one of only a handful that Khan Academy has forged with school systems nationwide. It’s the only one in the Tampa Bay area, and it’s the only one outside of California with a private school network. The pilot involves math instruction at 10 private schools in the Tampa area, all of which accept tax credit scholarships.
Khan Academy’s interactive tools, including thousands of short, engaging videos, are available for free to anyone who wishes to use them. But the partnership schools get additional materials so their teachers can even more effectively pinpoint where students are falling short – and then efficiently get them up to speed.
For schools in the Step Up partnership, there’s also a parental engagement piece.
At the 65-student Gateway Christian, Giovanni and his mom, TiJuana DeBose, were among a handful of families participating in last night’s “Khan Night.” The aim: To help parents become better partners – coaches, in fact – so they can better help their kids with math homework.
“It looks easy,” DeBose said after giving the Khan Academy program a spin. “The old fashioned way is you get the book, you flip through the book, and you say, ‘I don’t know.’ This way, it’s something we can do together. He’s learning. I’m learning. We’re a team.”
DeBose, an office administrator at a foster care agency, transferred Giovanni into Gateway Christian in January with the help of a tax-credit scholarship. She said between the new setting and use of the Khan Academy materials (which Gateway began using last spring), her son’s attitude about math has done a 180. “Before it was like, ‘I don’t want to do this, I don’t understand this,’ “ she said. “Now he barely comes to me and asks for help. He’s mastering it on his own.”
Giovanni said his immediate reaction to a Khan Academy video was, “Wow.”
“A book, you start losing interest,” he said. “But when you’re sitting in front of the computer, it’s more attractive.”
“It’s more advanced than a book, but it’s easier on the mind,” he continued. “I feel like it’s making my mind grow.”
The Khan Academy/Step Up For Students program is another sign of how rapidly public education is changing. All kinds of neat partnerships are possible when more learning options are on the table.
Elsewhere in Tampa Bay, the Notre Dame ACE Academies is working with two Catholic schools on a project to take Catholic education to a higher level. Tax credit scholarships are key to the effort, because they will allow more low-income families – particularly Hispanic families – to access Catholic schools and benefit from a revamped Catholic education that’s built to thrive in the 21st century.
Meanwhile, a Florida State University professor is rolling out a program to identify middle school students who show promise in science, and then give them the support they need to become future scientists and engineers. The Future Physicists of Florida will begin at six middle schools in Orlando, Jacksonville, Tallahassee and Pensacola. Three are traditional public schools. Three are charter schools.
There is no end to the variation that can come in an education environment with more energy, more choice and more potential matches between kids, teachers, schools and programs. Ultimately, it means more kids like Giovanni paired with what works best for them.
Editor’s note: I work for Step Up For Students. Read more about the partnership with Khan Academy here.