No star left behind: changing the way we think about education

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This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and AT&T. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

Oak Cliff, Texas, is like any number of urban neighborhoods across the country - striving to maximize opportunities for those in the community. A family of four here might earn $30,000 a year or less. Rent for a home can be $600 a month, which might often feel like a fortune. Nearly 75 percent of the 180,000 residents are minorities, and citizens in this community are working hard to provide the best for their family.

Michael* is eight years old and has lived in a challenging economic environment all of his life. He loves computer games and his mind is constantly churning over complex electronic puzzles. Ask him about his favorite video games and he can tell you insightful tricks and details about each level as if he invented the games himself. Ask him to write down his thoughts, however, and his eagerness and confidence fades.

"He has awesome ideas and is a phenomenal reader who is way above his grade level," says Sarah Fallon, his teacher. "But when we did on-demand assessments, when you have 45-minutes to write a narrative, he just couldn't do it. He'd get two pages down, struggle with his ideas, get frustrated, and then the time would be up."

Things began to change last year, however, when Michael's school became the beneficiary of AT&T's Aspire initiative, a multifaceted program that has put millions of dollars into preparing students for success in school and careers. It's changing the way we think about education — and not just for kids. Last year, AT&T and Udacity created the Nanodegree program where students of all ages can learn industry-specific skills online. By the end of next year, AT&T hopes to provide one million hours of youth mentoring through its Aspire Mentoring Academy, a service that could mean the difference between finishing high school or not. For Michael and his school, the program has provided students from urban, underserved areas with tablets and programs that have facilitated new ways for teachers to connect with their students.

Michael's school, the Momentous School - powered by the Salesmanship Club of Dallas, a local service organization - was an ideal place for collaboration with AT&T. Founded as part of a program that focuses on social emotional health, the school is about 20 years old and sits in a tidy Spanish-style building in the heart of the neighborhood. More than 85 percent of the kids who come to the non-profit private school qualify for free or reduced cost meals. Here, they don't just learn grammar school basics but also how to deal with the stressors around them. A child's social-emotional health, educators say, is a key to opening up learning and lifelong success. The question was, how could technology help foster that growth?

"If you can empathize and take on the perspective of others it helps regulate behavior and that, in turn, helps academic performance," says Karen Thierry, the school's director of education research. "A lot of schools attend to academics but we attend to the whole child."

The way this plays out with AT&T Aspire and new technology is quite remarkable in its simplicity. Starting last year every student in the nearly 250-strong population was given a tablet. After a few trial and error periods, Momentous educators and AT&T developers eventually settled on a handful of apps designed to help children learn in ways that are right for them while helping them gain control of their own emotions. One app gets children calm and focused by allowing them to shake a virtual snow-globe of sorts on the tablet that they then watch settle. Another one helps them to neutralize fear and worry by visually showing problems blow away in bubbles. The students troubleshoot their own tablets and use them to receive real-time feedback on their work.

"You'd be amazed at what these relatively simple things can do," says Regina Moldovan, the school's communications director. "Teachers are seeing children working together more, explaining things to each other, problem solving. They're focused and present. It's pretty neat how there is a lot more collaboration among the children."

For teachers like Fallon, the tablets allow her to customize lessons based on the individual student's needs. If Sally is a stronger speller, Fallon can create and deliver a spelling lesson specifically to Sally's tablet that challenges her with bigger words. The classroom can hold Skype conferences with marine biologists to learn about manta rays or chat with students in other schools around the country. The students journal everyday about something they're grateful for, too. Students who might be too shy to speak up in class can still share their ideas by commenting on stories through their tablets. By showing students a world beyond their classroom, by teaching them to see the world in a positive light that lies within their grasp, educators are able to instill a sense of wonder and empathy.

This isn't touchy-feely fluff, either. Studies have shown a direct relationship between higher empathy levels and improved reading and math scores — sometimes by as much as 20 percentage points. The success results at Momentous are stunning. At Momentous, 97 percent of students graduate on time and 86 percent continue on to college.

For Michael, the improvement in his writing has been equally mind-boggling. Every night in second grade he took his tablet home and decided to write a little in one of his apps. He did this on his own, free from the pressure of test scores and ticking clocks. By the end of the year, the kind boy who could barely write two pages had created a rollicking yarn about a dragon who must train to become the best he can be to save the day. The characters are developed. The plot twists are exquisite. The story is 50 pages long.

"There's no doubt we're at a turning point in education," his teacher, Fallon, says. "I'm doing my best to prepare these kids for jobs that do not exist today. We may not know what the future is going to look like but we do know it's going to involve technology. We need this, not because it's shiny and fancy, but because it works."

*Name has been changed.

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and AT&T. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

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