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A Promise to Renew: Try, Try Again at Quitman Street Renew School

Glover sensed teacher motivation lacking in some cases; in others, he said, teachers were trying hard but struggling to be effective. He hopes that blended learning will infuse new energy into those classrooms, resulting in better performance.

Dawn DiGiovanni, who teaches fourth-grade math and science, estimates that about 50 percent of her students are below grade level, 20 percent perform above average, and everyone else is somewhere in between. Last school year, her first at Quitman and in a full-time teaching position, she said she did not have the capacity to meet the wide array of needs in her classes.

This year, DiGiovanni has undergone extensive training and planning in preparation for blended learning. Even before the new initiative began, she had started dividing students into small groups and having them rotate around the room with activities better suited to their individual strengths and weaknesses.

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Credit: Amanda Brown
Quitman fourth-grade teacher Dawn DiGiovanni works with Damir Ingram on a math problem. DiGiovanni says she’s able to meet the needs of more students this year thanks to a new “blended learning” program allowing her to work with small groups as children rotate to different activities around the room.

On a recent Tuesday, DiGiovanni began the morning math period with a quick lesson on fractions with the number 1 in the numerator. She then gave the 15 children in the room a few questions to test basic understanding. (Kevin and Olivia are going to share a pizza cut into six slices . . . ) She walked around to check their work, distributing painted popsicle sticks accordingly: Kids with all correct answers got purple, those with one wrong answer got green, and those with multiple wrong answers got red, although they were not told the reason for their placement in a particular group.

For the next 45 minutes, the children moved in 15-minute intervals. The red group began with DiGiovanni reviewing the basics with fraction puzzle pieces to show, for instance, how eight-tenths is equal to eight one-tenth pieces. The green group worked independently on drills at the Hewlett-Packard laptops along the right side of the room. The purple group played a game in pairs, adding and subtracting fractions with different denominators. When the red and green groups later had their turns for the game, they got easier problems in which the denominators were all the same.

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Credit: Amanda Brown
In math class with Dawn DiGiovanni at Quitman, fourth graders Lyana Gonzalez, Crystal Serrano, and Ijanae Poulson work together on a fraction game. Some students receive a harder version of the game than others, depending on their understanding.

DiGiovanni said the new approach to teaching is particularly helpful to struggling students. Some of the top performers said they also are learning more as they are no longer being held back by classmates in need of remediation.

“The math is very, very great,” said Arshad Mallard, 10, a purple group member wearing a royal blue New York Giants T-shirt in lieu of Quitman’s uniform royal blue polo. He said he discovered that his textbook “has a lot of over-my-level things inside of it,” and now he’s getting to try them out.

And DiGiovanni, who said she felt overwhelmed at times last year and sought much guidance from experienced colleagues, can see herself becoming a more effective teacher. “I’m definitely meeting the needs of more children,” she said.

Southern Inspiration

Glover is particularly excited about what’s happening in the fifth-grade math and science classes of Jessica Allen, a teacher he hired in September. Allen, a 12-year teaching veteran, had just moved to New Jersey from Virginia because of her husband’s job. She chose to work in Newark despite living nearly an hour and a half away, near the Pennsylvania border, because she loves teaching urban youth, and she chose a position at Quitman over one at a charter school.

Coming in for a tour and interview, she had not expected a school labeled failing to look so inviting and engaging, and the students she met seemed genuinely happy to be there. “I walked in here, and I was just amazed,” she said. “I was amazed by the colors on the walls, the bulletin boards. I just fell in love with it.”

Allen said she wanted to cry when she saw her students’ dismal NJ ASK scores from last year as fourth graders. In the months since, she has been working hours comparable to or even longer than Glover’s, leaving home at 4:30 each morning so she can be the first person in the building when it opens at 6:30 a.m. She stays until 7 or 8 p.m. despite having two children of her own, a daughter in sixth grade and a son in seventh.

At the beginning, middle, and end of each academic year, Newark administers a test to gauge schools’ progress and compare their performance to one another. In the fall, none of Allen’s students passed the math portion. In January, her classes had the highest fifth-grade scores in the city. The scores don’t count toward Quitman’s state rankings as NJ ASK results do, but at a minimum, they serve as inspiration.

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