West Fargo Public Schools (WFPS) is the fastest growing school district in the state of North Dakota, with an average increase of 400-600 students each academic year. Keeping up with that kind of growth is a challenge—both fiscally and academically. Right now, close to 10 percent of the WFPS student population are English Language Learners (ELLs) and they speak nearly 60 different languages.
In 2016, the district began using DreamBox in their Welcome Center, a special K–5 learning environment expressly designed to help students new to the country with little or no English language skills. The goal was to help accelerate math learning for ELLs so when they transitioned to one of the district’s regular classrooms they’d be closer to grade-level proficiency. DreamBox proved so effective, the WFPS has since rolled the program out districtwide to all 13 elementary schools.
Going beyond speed drills and digitized worksheets
In WFPS, the schools don’t get funding to support new enrollment until the year after students enter the system. That can be a challenge when you’re adding half a thousand kids to the roster each year.
When Jill Leier, the district’s elementary math and science coordinator, started looking at digital math solutions, she knew WFPS needed a program that served up more than just the usual speed drills and digitized worksheets. They needed a practical solution that could not only help teach learners 21st century problem-solving skills, but that could also function as a much-needed extra set of hands in every classroom—a program that could help teachers differentiate and build capacity.
Leier used her own training on math pathways and how kids learn as a litmus test for evaluating digital solutions. While much of what she tested missed the mark, DreamBox really nailed it. Leier says she was impressed by, “the research, pedagogy, and attention to detail, especially the way DreamBox collects data for every student and adjusts each lesson to be just-right learning.”
She and her team were drawn to DreamBox because it had third-party research findings to back up its claims of efficacy. Plus, right out of the gate, teachers recognized a correlation between DreamBox and the other components of the district’s guaranteed and viable curriculum and resources they were already using in their classrooms. This, coupled with the early successes enjoyed by ELLs in theWelcome Center, helped to seal the deal.
Overcoming the biggest hurdles: money and time
While securing buy-in from the WFPS curriculum committee to use DreamBox districtwide was easy, finding the money to make it happen took a little more work. Leier says teachers and parents in her district fought hard to get DreamBox for their students, “PTAs and PTOs scraped, borrowed, begged, and fundraised.”
Once they managed to find the funds, teachers had to be equally creative about finding 15- to 20-minute pockets of class time in an already tight schedule to get kids on the learning platform. Since the district isn’t 1:1 with devices, teachers make the most of small group rotations and lab time. Leier also recommends teachers leverage those small intervals of “downtime” like at the very beginning of the day when kids are settling in to hop on DreamBox.
Of course, it helps that kids love playing DreamBox, “What I hear over and over again from teachers, is that the kids are begging to go on DreamBox,” says Leier. “It’s engaging, with just enough incentives and rewards to keep kids coming back. It not only teaches students to persevere, but it builds confidence in kids who might otherwise struggle—especially ELLs.”
Embracing the idea that mathematical thinking matters most
WFPS, like most districts, uses standardized assessments to monitor learner progress. Three times a year they measure student proficiency in math using the North Dakota State Assessment (NDSA), STAR Math, and FastBridge. Assessments like these help administrators make decisions about additional services for learners and provide a check on the effectiveness of curriculum and resources. While every district answers to stakeholders, research shows teaching to the test isn’t the ideal way to drive achievement.
Jill Leier thinks the best way to ace the assessments is to understand math. “I think at a school or classroom level, what matters most is mathematical thinking and a student’s ability to apply flexible math strategies … when kids understand the basics of number sense and how numbers work the assessments take care of themselves. And DreamBox helps them do just that.”
Heather Sand, director of K–12 curriculum and instruction, agrees and says DreamBox is helping to support the WFPS district’s stated mission to ensure that all students have the mathematical skills and strategies needed in a 21st century education. “DreamBox is helping us prepare today’s learners for tomorrow’s world with curriculum that builds those critical problem-solving skills these kids will need to succeed down the road,” remarks Sand. “Plus, DreamBox is also helping our teachers be more successful in their instruction and practice.”
Empowering teachers to be more targeted in their practice
DreamBox is helping to transform the way WFPS teachers look at numeracy, helping them to shift from an antiquated teaching model that favors memorization to one that fosters a true understanding of mathematics through personalized learning experiences.
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