By Jacqueline Burt Wang

Brooklyn Schools “Leap” Into Learning

  |  PRODUCTS   

You’re probably familiar with Leapfrog’s interactive products, which use sound effects, games, and visuals to teach skills in phonics, reading, and math. If you’re a parent, chances are there’s at least one in your house right now. Since 1999, the Leapfrog SchoolHouse division has brought the company’s technology to the classroom, too, with a range of programs for preK-8th grade, all designed to meet state and national standards. Among the most popular offerings are “The Literacy Center”, an early literacy program for preK-2nd grade; “Language First!”, an English language development system; and “Ready, Set, Leap!”, a reading readiness curriculum for preschoolers. Over 14,000 classrooms nationwide have implemented Leapfrog SchoolHouse, including more than 30 schools in NYC.

This past October, five NYC-area schools shared a $125,000 donation from LeapFrog to fund the installation of the LeapTrack Assessment and Instruction System; included were P.S. 44 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and P.S. 399 in Flatbush. To choose the schools, LeapFrog SchoolHouse partnered with the NYC Board of Education, administration and participating principals to identify the most at-risk schools, representing low-income, free and reduced lunch, and special needs students. Donations were made in the hopes of “closing the achievement gap.” “We wanted to leverage it for kids whose parents aren’t in the economic position to buy one of these things,” says Maureen Gravioli, director of product marketing for LeapFrog SchoolHouse. Gravioli touts the accessibility of the products. “They run on batteries and they’re portable,” she says. “You don’t need to have the wizard behind the curtain helping you figure out how to work it. You put the headphones on and press ‘go’.” While Leapfrog SchoolHouse has been in NYC for almost three years, only in the past 6-9 months has the core program been adapted on a large scale. This expansion is due in part to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, the controversial education reform law designed to improve academic achievement with a focus on low-performing schools. NCLB asks that schools accommodate more special ed students, as well as boost their English language development and after-school programs. Leapfrog SchoolHouse aims to provide tools that address these concerns. Perhaps the most widely used and successful of these tools is the LeapTrack System. Its primary function is to help teachers effectively manage a large range of skill levels — a challenge in overcrowded urban classrooms. Here’s how it works: Children use personal desktop LeapPads or Quantum Pads, complete with headphones and stylus, to work on standardized tests and other level-appropriate exercises. When they are finished, the teacher removes a cartridge from the LeapPad that records student data. The cartridge is then plugged into the teacher’s computer, where results are formatted into reports that gauge student performance against state standards. From there, teachers can prescribe a “learning path” with specialized content based on individual strengths and weaknesses. LeapTrack’s formalized reports also serve a secondary purpose: They help schools to meet the NCLB requirement that the state be provided with assessments of every public school student’s progress in reading and math from grades 3-8. At P.S. 44 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, principal Deborah Knight is optimistic about what LeapTrack can do for her students. “I hope it helps children to become independent,” she says. “I hope it helps them with reading fluency and gives them strategies to use when they come across tricky language.” When Knight first learned of the grant, “I told them I wasn’t going to accept it because I couldn’t have my teachers go through any more training,” she says. “They were already overwhelmed.” Happily, Knight and LeapFrog SchoolHouse were able to devise a plan that would allow students to benefit from the products without putting added stress on staff: They got the parents involved. LeapTrack has now been added to the school’s Saturday Family Literacy Program, where kids and parents work together on LeapTrack material, taking pressure off teachers. “Children enjoy it,” says Knight. “They like the fact that they have their own individual component to work from. The fact that they get feedback right away is very positive. And parents are pleased!” Soon, LeapTrack will be a part of P.S. 44’s literacy intervention program for grades 2 and 3. Also in the works is the installation of Language First! for students learning English as a second language. “What we’re waiting for is laptops from the Board of Ed,” says Knight. (Teachers need their own computers to supervise the LeapTrack system). Interestingly, Knight had never heard of LeapFrog before receiving the grant. “I wasn’t really familiar with LeapFrog, then I found out from many staffers or parents, ‘Oh, I bought that for my niece or nephew or daughter,’” she says. Currently, 43 percent of P.S. 44 students are on or above grade level. “Our literacy is getting better, but we’re not yet where we want to be,” says Knight. “LeapFrog is just another dimension to help us move in the right direction.”