The mid-July announcement that Germantown’s DePaul Catholic School was awarded a $500,000 grant by the Philadelphia School Partnership to adopt an innovative instructional program was big news. Well it should be.
The instructional model put together by New York-based Seton Educational Partners, called Phaedrus, divides the students’ school day into 25- to 30-minute sessions between computer time and traditional oral instruction.
DePaul, one of 14 newly established Catholic Independence Mission Schools in Philadelphia and Delaware County, expects to phase the system in over a three-year period beginning with kindergarten to grade two this year and progressing through grade eight by 2015-16.
As explained in Seton Partners’ literature, the lower grades typically use traditional desktop computers while the upper grades use laptops, which allow them to stay in place during their computer sessions.
The Phaedrus model creates an instructional environment that provides students individualized and focused learning opportunities for the core subject area, the Seton Partners website explains.
The system is relatively new and the jury is still out on its effectiveness. However initial results from two Phaedrus schools already established — Mission Dolores in San Francisco and St. Therese Catholic School in Seattle — are promising, with above-average student advancement rates.
This year St. Anne in Santa Monica, Calif., and DePaul in Philadelphia have been added. This is in keeping with the mission of Seton Partners, which focuses on assistance to Catholic schools in inner-city neighborhoods.
Like most of the mission schools, “DePaul is offering families a quality education in a neighborhood of Philadelphia with too few good options,” said Mark Gleason, executive director of Philadelphia School Partnership, an organization that works to improve education at all schools – public, charter, Catholic and independent. “A growing number of students at DePaul are reading and doing math on grade level, and the leadership team is committed to building on this transformation to serve more students,” he said.
Most of the students at DePaul live in zip code 19144 and 99 percent are African-American, according to Daughter of Charity Sister Cheryl Ann Hillig, the school’s principal, who initially applied to Seton Partners for inclusion in the program. Her school has two classrooms per grade as well a kindergarten and the addition of pre-k this year.
The goal is 30 children to a classroom with one teacher and one teacher’s assistant, according to Sister Cheryl Ann. This figure is deemed practical because the teacher will be focusing on only 15 children at a time, while the other 15 are working independently with the Phaedrus software which is written for the entire core curriculum.
The computers, which monitor individual progress and adapt the program to a student’s level of accomplishment, also track progress and supply data to the teacher who can focus on areas that need to be addressed.
Sister Cheryl Ann said, “In schools using Phaedrus student annual progress has been above one year’s expectation.”
“This is the future,” said Al Cavalli, president of the Independence Mission Schools. “Philadelphia School Partnership, Seton Educational Partners and Independence Mission Schools came together and here we are. Philadelphia School Partnership, especially Mark Gleason, was the driving force.”
Just as important as the academic benefits, there is an economic benefit that is especially important to cash-strapped Catholic schools that do not benefit from public funding.
In Pennsylvania, according to 2012 National Educational Association figures, average elementary public school k-12 class size is 13.9 students. Although Catholic school class sizes are probably higher, they are nowhere near 30 students on average.
Even given the cost of computers, programs and increased number of teachers’ aides, there is a cost saving, which Seton estimates at 20-25 percent per pupil.
“We need to get costs down and still get good results. This allows us to do both through technology,” Cavalli said. “It is our hope as we gain success at DePaul we can put this together at other schools.”
While Seton, Independence Mission Schools, and Philadelphia School Partnership all focus on at-risk children in low-income neighborhoods, maybe other schools should also be looking at systems like this. Middle class parents would like a tuition break too.